Cherries are a $3 million-plus industry in Montana annually, and though that share of the cherry market is much smaller than those of other Western cherry states such as Washington and Oregon, it’s nonetheless an important addition to the Flathead Valley’s economy, since virtually all of the Montana commercial cherry crop is arranged in a circle around Flathead Lake. Approximately 75 percent of the annual Flathead cherry harvest is sold to the Washington-based Monson Fruit Company, according to Brian Campbell, Monson’s Montana field representative. Several years ago, local growers who supply Monson banded together to form the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers, who successfully advocated this year for a “check-off program” that would impose a tax of 1/2 cent to 2 cents per pound on growers who sell more than 200 pounds of cherries in a year. Revenues will be used to fund cherry research and marketing aimed at expanding Montana’s share of the market, as well as a “pest management area,” otherwise known as a pesticide spray program.
Cherry growers were instructed to return their check-off ballots to the Montana Department of Agriculture by March 23, and the final tally, released Monday, showed 51 growers in support of the program and 13 against, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Lee Boyer.
“This basically is a program to control fruit flies,” says Richard Wilson, who serves on the board of directors for the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers and owns the Cherries by the Pond orchard a mile north of Yellow Bay on the east side of Flathead Lake.
Tom Morris, a Bigfork-based noncommercial grower and former inspector with the Montana Department of Agriculture, explains that the flies emerge “just when the cherries are getting ripe” in June.
After a fly lays eggs inside a cherry, Morris says, “a worm hatches and eats its way down to the pit of the cherry and lives there for about 20 days.”
If a worm is found inside a Flathead cherry, it could shut down the Flathead cherry industry’s export market, Wilson warns, thereby costing local growers and the Flathead’s economy millions. “Monson has zero tolerance for fruit fly larvae, as does the state of California,” Wilson says, which is why the check-off tax includes a mandatory pesticide spray program.
The program is specifically aimed at recreational cherry tree owners, or those who may have planted cherry trees simply for tax breaks with no intention of harvesting, Campbell says. Such tree owners won’t have to pay the tax if they don’t sell 200 pounds of cherries, but will have to allow their trees to be sprayed in order to prevent infestation from occurring and possibly spreading to neighboring commercial orchards.
“The program has the authority to go in and spray the trees” of those who may object to the program, Wilson says, and dissidents would also have to pay for the mandatory spraying.
While organic fruit buyers might fear such a program would affect organic growers, that isn’t necessarily so, because many organic growers already use pesticides. One such is Lise Rousseau, who along with her husband owns an orchard on Finley Point. Unlike neighboring orchards that supply Monson—which requires a strict spray program of its own, according to Campbell—Rousseau’s orchard supplies certified organic cherries to grocers including Missoula’s Good Food Store and Mountain Valley Foods in Kalispell.
Rousseau sprays her cherries with Dow Chemical’s Entrust, which contains spinosad, a product that received organic status from the USDA National Organic Program because it is derived through the fermentation of naturally occurring bacteria. This new pesticide may be more environmentally friendly than other Flathead orchard favorites, which Morris says includes Malathion (the Environmental Protection Agency has found “suggestive evidence” that Malathion causes cancer, and it’s been banned in Japan since 1960) and Guthion (which can almost single-handedly account for the total allowable pesticide exposure risk to children established under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act).
Yet even if all Flathead cherry growers switched to Entrust, that would not entirely eliminate the environmental risk; a University of Minnesota study of Entrust finds it to be moderately toxic to several kinds of fish and slightly toxic to others, including rainbow trout, which are present in Flathead Lake.
“We try to be as responsible as we can with anything we put out there,” Rousseau says, noting that she never sprays on windy days. “If misused, we could potentially hurt something. We’re using Entrust but others are not, so there are other issues as well.”
Pesticide use in areas surrounding Flathead Lake is of concern to Bonnie Ellis, a senior research scientist at the University of Montana’s Yellow Bay Biological Station who has been working on water quality issues at Flathead Lake since 1978.
“Because we’re down-gradient from orchards, we’re definitely concerned and interested” in possible effects of pesticides on water quality, Ellis says. “Our water supply comes from groundwater, but we really don’t know a lot about what feeds that water supply, and we have orchards right uphill from us.”
Environmental concerns aside, it might seem an unusual time for Flathead cherry growers to endorse more extensive pesticide spraying, since no widespread fly problem currently exists, according to Wilson, one of the tax’s main supporters.
“We’ve controlled the fly very, very well,” Wilson says. “We’ve had a few places where a worm has been found in the cherries, but it’s very minimal. But the threat is always there.”
Incidentally, the worm is not unhealthy to eat, says Morris, the former Montana Department of Agriculture inspector.
“It’s just that people don’t want to eat them because they don’t look good.”
Still, the noncommercial grower echoes Wilson’s sentiments as to the need for a check-off program to fund mandatory spraying because, he says, “A lot of people don’t realize it’s millions of dollars to the Flathead Valley every year.”
So, too, of course, are the waters of the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.