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Orchardists grow different cherry varieties

Around Flathead Lake, the sweet cherries are glowing red on the trees, soaking in the sun and growing larger and darker red each day. In another week or so, cherry harvest will begin. In the meantime, cherry farmers are spraying and preparing for picking to begin. 

But before the cherries reach picking stage, lots of work has gone into choosing the types of cherries. 

In a bid to make their cherries more marketable, a small group of growers approached the Flathead County Extension office, which set up a varieties trial through Dr. Matt Whiting, a top Washington State University cherry specialist.

Louise Swanberg, a cherry farmer near Lakeside, is in this group. She said three times in the last six years, Flathead cherries have not sold, sometimes have not even been picked, because Washington and Oregon cherries flooded the market.

The varieties trial cherry farmers want are cherries that taste good, ripen in the proper time frame and can stand a little warmer temperature than Washington. They have planted Pinedale Ruby, a favorite of one of the main orchardists in Washington; Attika, a cherry from the Czech Republic; Regina, a German cherry; Skeena; Hudson, a cherry out of upstate New York; Santana, an early variety; and Glory, a full mutation cherry from Washington.

Swanberg said the Attika and Regina cherries do well in the taste test and are very “crack resistant.” That means if rain falls near harvest time, the cherries are less likely to develop splits in their skin. 

The Hudson cherry is cold resistant while the Skeen cherry is “exceptionally good tasting, very large and has a high quality taste.”

Santana is an early variety, while the Glory is prolific, fast growing and sets really well; but the 264 trial trees are only four years old so all the data is not complete.

In her own orchard, the Point Caroline Orchard, she plans to plant some Early Robin cherry trees, a yellow cherry which rivals a Rainer; Index cherries primarily as pollinators and Black Gold, a cold resistant cherry.

Three days of frost at the end of May this year affected the Flathead Lake cherry crop so Swanberg is interested in cherries that can take the cold.   

In a featured-landowner article in the Flathead County Newsletter, Montana State University Extension Agent Pat McGlynn wrote about cherry grower Mark St. Sauver. St. Sauver is also one of the trial orchardists. Both St. Sauver and Swanberg are both second-generation cherry growers. 

“My mom and dad planted it (the orchard) with me and my brothers and sisters when I was 12, in 1961,” Swanberg said.

St. Sauver has an orchard near Yellow Bay, purchased by his parents in 1970. After the “big freeze” in 1989 when the Flathead lost about over half of its cherry trees, the St. Sauvers replanted with Lapin cherries from Canada and planted the trees closer together than the traditional one-tree-every-20-feet.   

According to McGlynn, the farmers in the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers are “considering transitioning their orchards to produce later-ripening cherries.” 

Although this would make the harvest season longer and later, there would be less competition with Washington cherries.

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