YELLOW BAY – There was a reason Gary Snow got choked up Monday when he and his wife Susan were otherwise delivering what they believe is good news to members of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Cooperative.
The Snows announced they are partnering with the growers and Monson Fruit Company of Washington, which packs and markets the cooperative's cherries, to open a juice processing plant on Finley Point.
If all goes well, they’ll be bottling their Tabletree-brand cherry juice, made with Flathead Lake cherries, there this summer.
“Business people roll their eyes when I say this, but it’s not just about us,” Gary Snow told a crowd of orchardists at the Yellow Bay Community Clubhouse. “People who grow cherries are a small fraternity, and if we can help you recover some of your costs …”
As his voice trailed off, Susan Snow took the microphone from her husband.
“It’s an emotional time for us,” she explained, “from the downfall of our farm in Canada to hooking up with these people.”
The Snows spent the last 20 years growing cherries in Susan’s hometown, Creston, British Columbia, where her family has been in the cherry business since 1912.
Orchardists there had long talked about finding a use for tossed-away culls, which at times made up 35 to 40 percent of their harvests, Gary said.
“But nobody ever did anything,” he added.
When the British Columbia Innovation Council sponsored a commercialization of agriculture technology competition in 2010, the Snows took matters into their own hands. Susan designed a unique extraction and processing system for making juice from their culled cherries.
The design took second place, winning enough money to start Tabletree as a small business.
By 2012, Tabletree was taking home the top prize for best pure-juice product at the World Juice Conference in Barcelona, Spain.
“We were competing against the likes of Tropicana, Minute Maid, Welch’s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” Gary said. “The only continent not represented in the competition was Antarctica, which doesn’t grow a lot of fruit.”
But even as they sought to launch their fledgling company with a "shoestring budget," the Canadian economy was headed the wrong direction. As the Canadian dollar weakened, their orchard income fell off by 33 percent.
“The farm tanked because of the market,” Gary said. “Sue’s a third-generation cherry grower, and we didn’t want to be the ones that lost the family farm. We fought it as long as we could.”
Just more than a year ago, on a Sunday in February, they made the decision to sell the orchard.
Two days later, Flathead Lake Cherry Grower board member Bob Sandman called them, and he wasn’t interested in buying their orchard.
Sandman wanted to talk juice.
The Flathead Cherry association was formed in 1935. They’re a small speck on the world map – 700 acres of orchards, with an average orchard size of 10 acres, according to Sandman.
The state of Washington has 30,000 acres of cherry orchards, he said.
“We play no role in the marketplace,” Sandman said. “In the last 10 years our costs are up 25 percent, but revenues have not kept pace. We’re slowly bleeding to death. We got together as a board and asked, ‘What can we do?’”
First, they were looking for a “value-added secondary product,” Sandman said.
They were also interested in finding a use for the Finley Point facility where local growers had processed their own cherries until Monson Fruit took over in 1999.
“We still use it as a staging area during harvest,” Sandman said, “but it’s only in use six weeks a year.”
And, he said, the board was interested in investigating ways orchardists could increase revenues from culls.
“Once they’re culled in Washington, we get paid for them, but it’s at a loss,” he said.
Of the 2 million pounds of cherries the co-op typically produces in a summer, up to 600,000 pounds may be culled before the cherries are shipped to markets around the world.
Premium quality is the key to Flathead cherries surviving in the marketplace, according to Chris Monson of Monson Fruit, and technology has made it possible to weed out all but the best.
The machinery can sense a soft cherry, and cameras examine each piece of fruit 36 times, searching for punctures or bruises. Culling those out puts a better product in produce aisles, which is good for Flathead growers, Monson said. But it also increases the number of culls.
“We’re excited to be a part of something that will benefit all growers,” Monson said of the juice partnership.
Among the financial benefits: The trucks that transport Flathead cherries to the Monson processing plant in Selah, Washington, have always returned to Montana empty to pick up more cherries.
Now they’ll be hauling back the culls for the juice processing plant.
The Snows have ties to Montana. They lived in the Flathead Valley for a decade in the 1980s and ’90s, when Gary played bass in Rob Quist’s Great Northern band and Sue worked at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
In fact, it was Jim Oliverson, a vice president at Kalispell Regional, who is responsible for the Snows coming back to Montana to make juice.
The Snows have long been friends with Oliverson and his wife, Susan said. Oliverson isn’t a cherry grower, but serves on a different board in Kalispell with Sandman.
When he heard Sandman talking about problems the cooperative's board was tackling, Oliverson told Sandman he ought to connect with the Snows and find out about their juice business.
What he learned, Sandman said, “Not only addresses all three of the board’s objectives, it knocks them out of the park.”
Gary Snow said they’ll have a 40- to 50-day window this summer to produce a year’s worth of product made with Flathead culls.
“It won’t be huge the first year,” he said. The operation will take up approximately 9,000 square feet of the Finley Point facility, he predicted, and employ 10 to 12 people, with the ability to add more shifts if demand warrants it.
The plant is being re-engineered for the juice-making process.
“As we go on, we plan to expand each year,” Snow said, adding that they’ve used the same process to make apple and plum juice and are testing grapes, blueberries and peaches.
“Probably everybody and their dog makes apple juice,” he said. “We’ll want fruits you don’t see a lot of.”
That will start with cherry juice. Now that they’re on this side of the border, it will come with “Far less French on the label,” Snow joked, and instead with “Montana-made, Montana-grown” labeling.
“Cherry growers don’t usually get excited talking about culled cherries,” Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Cooperative President Bruce Johnson said, but Monday’s announcement, he hopes, will change that.