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Conference Name Sweet Cherry Variety Trials on Flathead Lake, MT

Patricia McGlynn

Summary

There are currently over one thousand acres in sweet cherry production on Flathead Lake in Northwest Montana. The Flathead Lake Cherry Industry is a $3.5 million contributor to Montana┬┤s economy. The industry is currently facing its largest crisis since its beginnings in 1893. In three out of the last 10 years, the Flathead Cherry growers were without a market for their cherries. Over 800 acres of the trees in production are the Lambert variety. These trees are at least 25 years old. The newer cherry varieties from Washington State are larger and out-compete the Montana Lamberts. Orchard owners agree that the Lamberts must be replaced.

The lack of cherry research in Montana prohibited many producers from obtaining the information that they needed to make an accurate replacement variety choice. Transitioning the orchards is not only costly, but takes up to five years to see a new crop. The risk is great that the growers could choose a variety that would not do well under Montana conditions. The loss of production combined with the cost of trees and labor could put a producer out of business if the trees did not succeed.

Montana State University Extension collaborated with the Flathead Lake growers and out of state experts to establish six research sites around the lake to test new sweet cherry varieties. Two hundred sixty six trees were planted in May 2010 in replicated trials. So far, the plantings have been successful and face their first Montana winter. The risk to orchard owners will be greatly reduced once new varieties have been selected for hardiness and optimal marketing potential.

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