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Heat, fire take toll on regional cherry crop

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | August 13, 2021 7:00 AM

What once appeared to be the start of a promising season for the region's cherry orchards has taken a turn for the worse over the past few weeks as growers have battled oppressive heat and the effects of the Boulder 2700 Fire near Polson.

A month ago, area cherry growers considered the hot days as something that might bring the annual harvest on a little earlier than usual. Now, with more than 30 days of high temperatures above 90 degrees since June 1 — and three above 100 degrees — that optimism has turned to despair as the heat had the opposite effect.

"It looked like we were going to have a large crop with a lot of fruit coming on, but the extended heat wave finally caught up with us. The fruit just didn't size up for a lot of the orchards," said Bruce Johnson of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers. "The fruit was there, and it is still there on the trees, but it just didn't grow large enough to make it marketable."

Johnson said the heat has left as much as 50% of the Flathead cherry crop undersized and not commercially viable, leading many growers to leave the fruit unpicked in their orchards. It was another blow to area growers in a season that already was seeing lower-than-normal prices.

"Because of some things happening outside of Montana, the cherry market already wasn't great this season, and there just wasn't much of a market for smaller fruit at all," Johnson said. "Some of the orchards, realizing they were not going to make any money with their crop this season, just left the fruit on the trees. With the cost of picking, processing and shipping, harvesting the smaller fruit just didn't make financial sense."

Conditions only got worse for Polson-area growers with the outbreak and spread of the Boulder 2700 Fire near Finley Point.

While the fire may not have destroyed any large orchards, the blaze has disrupted picking efforts due to road closures and power outages.

Standing on his back porch in early August with the fire burning just a few miles away, Johnson explained how the fire has impacted the harvesting efforts for his orchard.

With road closures keeping him away from his warehouse on Finley Point, which had been without power for days, Johnson was unable to resume picking operations while worrying about the fate of his crop sitting without refrigeration.

Relief finally arrived in the form of several refrigerated trucks sent by partner Monson Fruit Co. of Selah, Wash. Picking operations were able to resume north of the road closure for the fire, but the cherries had to be hauled all the way back around Flathead Lake to the south side of Finley Point for processing. Trucks also were allowed to retrieve the cherries from the warehouse, which were then shipped to Washington.

"It was really nice for them to send the truck over to help us and I think that really worked out well for us," Johnson said. "It's a crazy situation for all of us, but we are dealing with it as best we can."

With a slight break from the heat and the possibility of rain in the forecast over the next few days, more relief may be on the way for the area's cherry producers, but the future of this year's crop remains uncertain.

"We are not really sure how any of this is going to affect cherry prices in the near future. They are not really great right now, but we are hoping they might rebound before the tail end of the cherry season. You never really know," Johnson said.

"We still have the sweetheart cherry harvest ahead of us, as they have not yet reached maturity," he said. "The harvest is still going on and the co-op is still operating, but more than a month's worth of 90-plus degree days really hurt us."