BIGFORK – Every summer, Jose Gutierrez and his cousins chase the cherry crop from Washington’s Yakima Valley to the eastern shores of Flathead Lake, where the swollen, rubicund fruit hangs from the orchard trees like red balloons, just waiting to be harvested.
For two weeks, their baskets brimming with the just-ripened Flathead cherries, Gutierrez and his family members easily earn $100 a day. But this year, a glut of prolific, co-occurring harvests throughout the Pacific Northwest has saturated the national and international markets, driving down prices and prompting a temporary cherry-picking moratorium until the market rebounds.
On Friday, just as Gutierrez and his 17 family members were ready to get to work, much of the cherry-picking on Flathead Lake came grinding to a halt.
“To come here with your entire family, with all the expenses, and then be told that you’ve got to wait, it’s hard,” said Gutierrez, 18.
But with market prices falling as low as $20 per case in an international pipeline that typically pays $30 per case, suppliers in Washington, Oregon and Montana reached a tri-state agreement Friday to cease picking for the national market, said Dale Nelson, president of the Flathead Cherry Growers Association.
“Everyone collectively stopped picking today. The commercial market price got soft, so we decided to quit supplying in order to let the market recover,” Nelson said. “When the price gets weak, that usually means there are too many cherries moving through the pipeline, so all the packing plants in Washington and Oregon agreed that the best way to get the price to recover is to stop the supply.”
The local markets are still thriving, with roadside stands bustling up and down the Flathead Lake shoreline. And even though the cooperative still is supplying cherries to Charlie’s Produce in Spokane, Wash., which distributes Flathead cherries to smaller grocery stores in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Idaho, the market is too small to accommodate the Flathead Valley’s entire harvest – estimated to be about 3 million pounds this year.
“It’s not like we aren’t picking and selling fruit, but the majority of it, that commercial, nationwide market, that’s where we’re pulling back to allow it to recover,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t tell you exactly when the price will recover, but it’s probably a matter of four or five days. I wish I knew myself.”
Outside of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association’s warehouse at Finley Point, scores of cherry-pickers milled around under the hot sun, eagerly awaiting word that steady work would resume. Plastic crates that would normally be teeming with cherries bound for the Monson Fruit Co. in Selah, Wash., were instead stacked high and empty.
“I’ve got my bucket and I’m ready to pick, but right now we’re stuck without a job,” said Aurelio Preciado. “A lot of pickers are pretty much devastated. Now we have a five- to seven-day wait and we don’t even know if we’re going to pick at all after that. Every day costs. Every day costs.”
If the picking moratorium goes on too long and the crop rots, the costs could be far greater than lost wages.
Cherries ripen more slowly and stay fresher if they remain on the tree, but the fruit is extremely perishable and doesn’t pack well for shipment once it becomes too soft. If the cherries remain on the trees for too long without being picked, they will become overly ripe and eventually die.
“The harvest has been stopped, and we only have a small window of opportunity for picking,” said Suzanne Laurion, whose 17-acre orchard is situated halfway between Polson and Bigfork. Laurion said she received a “no-picking alert” email on Friday morning, and hopes the market rebounds quickly.
“Our pickers are just sitting idly by,” she said. “They are trying to find other work, but I’m told there is no picking work available.”
In Lakeside, on the western shore of Flathead Lake, Louise Swanberg owns the Cherry House and maintains a cool attitude about the lull.
“We’re not dead. We’re doing fine. Things will turn around in a few days,” she said. “We’re still picking because there is a lot of local demand. The international pipeline is full, so we’ve been told to slow down for a few days. It’s just like selling wheat or selling hogs – you wait for the best price. We have a slightly more perishable item, so we leave it on the tree.”
One explanation for the glut of cherries is timing.
Flathead cherries typically ripen later than those in Washington and Oregon, so by the time they are harvested they are the only fruit on the market. But this year’s crop is ripening almost simultaneously with those in other states, in part because Washington growers have started planting cherry varieties that ripen later in the summer.
“Washington has gotten into our timeframes, so this year the supply just shot up,” Nelson said.
Fortunately, most Flathead growers still have the luxury of “being on the green side,” Nelson said, particularly the orchards growing lapin cherries, which are still seven to 10 days away from being ripe and ready to pick.
Lambert cherries ripen earlier, and are at the highest risk of becoming overly ripe.
“There will be some growers who lose fruit, especially if it gets overripe, which is fine for local sales but it doesn’t pack well,” he said.
At Glacier Fresh Orchards on Flathead Lake’s Yellow Bay, Cody Herring, an independent grower, is not affected by the picking moratorium. Consumers in Europe and Asia pay top dollar for cherries, but demand only the biggest and sweetest of the fruit, and Herring grows a premium product to fill that niche.
“We’re in a different market. It’s a different game,” said Herring, who left the Flathead co-op in 2005. His orchards are now audited by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Good Agricultural Practices, which has more stringent growing guidelines in order to comply with European Union regulations.
To ensure it has the most pampered fruit, Glacier Fresh built its own packing plant and custom packs all of its cherries, so Herring isn’t beholden to the international pipeline that is stalling most Flathead growers.
If he was, Herring said he’d be nervous.
“It’s a short season. In three weeks it will be lights out,” he said. “The reality is, it’s a perishable crop, so any delay can screw you.”
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at email@example.com.