Cody Herring and Marcia Zimmermann probably look like visionaries to the rest of the cherry growers around Flathead Lake.
One year ago, the mother/son team built their own cherry-packing plant in Yellow Bay so they could package and market their own cherries, rather than go through Washington-based Monson Fruit Co., like nearly all Flathead cherry growers do. This year a glut of cherries in Washington has depressed the market, causing Monson to decline much of the Flathead harvest, leaving many local growers little choice but to watch their fruit rot on the tree. Monson representatives did not return calls for comment.
Herring says his company, Glacier Fresh Cherries, is helping 11 Flathead cherry growers get their fruit to market by leasing their orchards and processing the fruit grown in them.
Carroll Lorang, who has been operating an orchard near Yellow Bay since 1973, says that without Herring, about 60,000 pounds of cherries he grew this year would have been wasted.
“It would have just fallen to the ground,” he says. “And it’s great fruit.”
Last year, processing only their own fruit, Glacier Fresh Cherries shipped about 125,000 pounds of cherries. This year, Herring says his company is set to ship about 1 million pounds.
In front of Herring’s warehouse is a sandwich board sign that reads, “Workers wanted,” with the word Trabajo—Spanish for “work”—in parentheses underneath.
The captive harvest enabled Glacier Fresh Cherries to hire 150 employees, up from 60 last year, giving jobs to many of the migrant workers who would had been turned away by the orchards they usually pick for.
Herring says there’s more than one story behind why he chose to start his own packing operation, but right now he’s only telling the positive one.
The positive story is that he wanted to get into the niche market of selling high-quality cherries to specialty stores and marketing abroad.
After the 2004 harvest, Herring says, he visited several Canadian cherry growers.
“They’ve never trusted their fruit with huge corporations,” Herring says.
He studied the Canadian system, came back to Montana, built a warehouse, and purchased the same equipment Canadian growers use. He began operations last year.
Herring found that Canadian growers pool their resources and operate cooperative packing plants. These plants use water to move cherries through a processing system that sorts, washes, separates clusters and allows the cherries to cool within two hours.
This system, Herring says, produces high-quality cherries because water cushions the fruit from bruises, and the fruit cools quickly. Every hour cherries spend off the tree at orchard temperature takes one day off their shelf life, Herring says.
Using the Canadian system, Herring says, gives the cherries a longer shelf life so he can sell them in England, Japan and Belgium. Having his own packaging operation also allows Herring to package and market his own cherries. Monson mixes cherries from growers in Montana and Washington together and sells them as “Northwest” cherries. Herring says his is now the only company marketing Montana cherries outside the state. He hopes to begin selling organic cherries next year. Monson, he says, does not take organic cherries, due to concerns about fruit flies contaminating large shipments.
Herring hopes that after this year, other Flathead growers will form their own cooperatives and start similar packing plants, but notes that a large company like Monson will probably always be necessary to process the high volume of cherries grown in the Flathead.
“They’re selling fruit by the truckload,” Herring says. “I’m selling it by the pallet.”
Still, he thinks diversification could help protect cherry growers in the Flathead.
“These growers have put all their eggs in one basket. There’s quality fruit everywhere and there’s no outlet,” he says. “Where’s the backup plan?”
But Tom Mitchell, who has grown cherries in Yellow Bay for 36 years, recalls that 20 years ago, the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association, a cooperative that represented nearly all Flathead cherry growers, bought the Finley Point packing plant and attempted to pack and market their own fruit.
“It was a disaster,” he says, noting it was hard to find help, and the marketing was poor.
The plant was eventually leased to Monson, Mitchell says, which now uses the building to hydro-cool the fruit before shipping.
Some growers, off the record, say they believe Monson’s absence this year is no fluke, and Mitchell agrees. He says new varieties of cherry, including the Sweetheart Bing, have been planted in Oregon and Washington to ripen about the same time as Flathead cherries. Those trees, Mitchell says, are maturing and bearing more and more fruit. Traditionally Flathead cherries have been the last to ripen in the United States, but as production of the new varieties increases, Flathead growers will face increasing competition. Mitchell doubts that local growers can successfully compete with growers in Oregon and Washington whose individual orchards can be the size of all the orchards surrounding Flathead Lake combined.
But competition with other growers may be beside the point for the orchards ringing Flathead Lake, Mitchell says.
“Do you have any idea what my property’s worth?” he asks. “I have 200 feet of lakefront property. Growing cherries has become a secondary issue.”