Local cherry growers get juice plant

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A new cherry juice plant should make a splash this summer in the growers community along Flathead Lake.

The Flathead Cherry Growers Association announced on Monday a new facility is being installed at a Finley Point warehouse for turning cull cherries, those not suitable for market, into juice. Gary and Susan Snow, who recently moved back to Yellow Bay after farming cherries in British Columbia, are bringing their juice factory to Flathead Lake as a mutual benefit for local growers.

“We’re lucky,” Gary said. “We’ve hit on a good product.”

In the past few weeks, the Snows have been setting up the equipment at the Finley Point warehouse where their company, Tabletree Montana, is expected to begin making juice in July when the cherries are ready for harvest. The plant will be capable of producing a capacity of 150,000 8.5-ounce bottles of cherry juice. Their company will be a new arm of the initial start-up, Tabletree Juice, which won Best Pure Juice in the World in Barcelona, Spain, in 2012.

In November 2015 the Flathead Cherry Growers Association received a $50,000 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture. After drawing a matching loan from a local bank, the association used the capital on maintenance upgrades to its Finley Point warehouse so Tabletree Montana could lease the facility and begin setting up the equipment.

Bruce Johnson, president of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association, kicked off his presentation on Monday with a message: “We’re here to announce a new company has come from the state of Montana.” His declaration brought cheers from a crowd of about 40 people at the Yellow Bay Community Club.

Bob Sandman, an association board member, said the board of directors outlined three objectives last year: to find a value-added product from Flathead Lake cherries; to find a function that can use the Finley Point warehouse more than six weeks of the year; and to find a way to produce revenue from cull cherries.

Sandman said in recent years between 20 and 30 percent of the cherries harvested around Flathead Lake were culls and unable to go to market.

“Over the past 10 years, our costs have gone up 10 percent and our revenues have not kept pace with that,” he said.

Finding a way to level revenue with expenses had been in discussion at the association for years.

Gary Snow said as a cherry farmer in Creston, British Columbia, he felt the same pressure Flathead Lake cherry growers feel each year. In 2009 a heavy rain caused most of his cherries to split and the farm lost $400,000 and 250,000 pounds of fruit. The Snows began processing juice in 2010; had they been able to juice the 250,000 pounds of cherries lost to rain, they might have been able to turn that year’s crop into some marginal revenue.

“We have so much at stake,” Susan said. “We literally almost lost our farm in Canada because of the downfall of the fruit industry there. That’s why we got into a value-added product, to save the family farm.”

Unfortunately for the Snows, they were forced to sell their farm last year. While they saw the potential for a new cherry juice plant, they were short on resources after selling the farm.

But just two days later, the door opened for a new opportunity. Sandman called the Snows with a proposition to bring their juice equipment to the Flathead Lake and produce juice from the cull cherries that can’t go to market.

“Bob said ‘You’re the answer to our prayers,’ and we said, ‘Well, you’re the answer to our prayers,’” Susan said.

At Monday’s announcement in Yellow Bay, Gary became emotional when describing what he believes he and Susan have to offer the Flathead Lake cherry growers.

“The business types roll their eyes when we say this, but it’s not just about us. We feel really strongly about this. As growers, we’re a small fraternity to start with. We’re not getting any bigger. If we can help give guys a fair return... Then we all win,” he said.

Again, the crowd clapped and cheered.

Susan said Tabletree expects to reach an output of 150,000 bottles of juice in 2016, but she expects production to increase to over a million bottles within the next few years after enlisting an engineer to refine the process. For now, they’re looking forward to the year ahead. Susan said Tabletree Montana is in the final stages of financing the new venture, but fully expects to be operational by July, when they’ll have about 40 to 50 days to complete the juicing process.

“It’s about helping the growers and paying their help,” Susan said. “I think we can do that.”

Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at slarson@dailyinterlake.com.

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