YELLOW BAY, Mont. - A new juicing facility on the western shore of Flathead Lake in Montana hopes to be a fruitful venture for area cherry producers.
In March, Tabletree Montana and Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association announced a joint partnership to construct a juice plant in Finley Point, Mont., and to be operational by the 2016 harvest season. The new venture will produce juices and sauces using culled, or damaged, fruit, which has typically been discarded or sold at a loss to farmers.
“This is big news for our growers because they spend all this money on labor, sprays, cultivating and irrigating and they never know how much they’ll get for their cherries,” says Pat McGlynn, Montana State University Extension agent for Agriculture, Natural Resource and Community Development. “This will help them if they run into a bumper crop or the timing isn’t right. It gives (producers) extra compensation for the labor to put into their crop.”
Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Inc. is an agricultural cooperative based in Montana since 1935. Seventy members grow about 2 million pounds of cherries each year. They sell most of their fruit through a marketing agreement with Monson Fruit Company in Washington. Grown in the Glacier and Flathead Lake area of northwest Montana, producers grow a variety of cherries including Lapin, Skeena, Sweetheart, Rainier and Lambert.
Tabletree Enterprises was founded in 2010 when Gary and Susan Snow, cherry farmers in Creston, British Columbia, developed a unique process and equipment that produces high-quality fruit juices and culinary sauces from culled fruit. That same year, Tabletree Juice won second place in the British Columbia Innovations Council Commercialization of Agricultural Technology competition for the design of cherry juicing equipment. Two years later, Black Cherry Juice won the World Juice Award for “Best Pure Juice” in Barcelona. Products include a black cherry juice, black cherry culinary sauce, red apple juice and red apple culinary sauce. There is a full pound of fruit in every 8.5-ounce bottle of juice. There are no preservatives, dyes or chemicals, and taste is enhanced with a touch of honey and cinnamon.
“Our recipe is simple: you take a healthy fruit and another healthy fruit and if you put those together then you have a healthy juice,” Susan says.
Flathead Lake cherry growers spend their winter months pruning the orchards. The spring months bring in bees from nearby apiaries to pollinate and work the cherry blossoms. Harvest typically begins in mid-July and will last about a month.
While most producers ship to Monson through the FLCG, a portion of cherries are also sold to local farmers markets and restaurants, and many orchards are left open to the public on a you-pick basis.
“I’m so happy to be able to do what I do,” says Mike Bonner, FLCG board member and cherry producer. “Working outside is a dream come true, and working in an orchard is a nice way to spend your days. It’s beautiful scenery. What could be better than growing out and harvesting cherries?”
For the Snows, cherries are more than just a job. Susan’s family had been growing cherries in Creston for a century. After suffering a major product loss in 2009, the Snows decided it was time to value add their product.
“It’s never been about us. It’s about the people. The fruit growers are a small fraternity to start with, and they’re not getting any bigger,” Gary says. “If we can do anything to help keep these people stay in business, then that’s what it’s about. We lived the life. We know how much it costs to grow and we know how much you lose in culls every year.”
The couple hopes to expand the business into Washington state in the next few years, but will maintain the facility in Finley Point.