Bowman Orchards has been a family affair for 100 years. They grow cherries in both Montana and Washington. Photo courtesy of Bowman Orchards

by Sally Colby

After growing a crop for 100 years, there’s a good chance the people behind it have become good at it. The Bowman family, of Bigfork, MT, recently celebrated a century as cherry growers. The enterprise started when Denise Bowman’s great-grandfather Simon Bowman purchased the land with his two of his sons. After clearing the property, they planted a small cherry orchard.

Denise explained that cherries do well in that area of Montana due to the proximity to the Flathead Lake, a body of water that’s large enough to moderate temperatures. While many early growers in the region planted apple orchards, the location her family settled on was ideal for cherries.

“My dad Jerry and mom Marilyn took over the orchard and expanded it in the late 1960s,” said Denise. “My brother and sister worked here too.” The cherry business was good until 1989 when a severe freeze wiped out nearly the entire orchard. “It killed the buds and almost all the trees were killed,” Denise recalled. “A lot of other growers in the area replanted, including us. My parents wanted to keep their wholesale customers so they began leasing orchards in Washington State. They eventually bought orchards there, so now we manage orchards here in Montana and also in Washington.” Denise added that operating multiple locations can be hectic, but it spreads the risk. If the crop in one state freezes or there’s a lot of rain, there’s a good chance the other orchards will be unaffected.

Cherry trees have a long lifespan, and Denise said some of the trees on the Montana property are around 80 years old. “Those trees survived that freeze,” she said. “When that happened, it seemed like the very young trees and the very old trees are the ones that survived. For whatever reason, the middle-aged trees weren’t as hardy.” Denise recalled her father started to pull out some of the trees he thought had been killed, but realized they were still alive. Although not many trees survived, some of the older trees continued to be productive.

An earlier severe freeze in 1935 also affected the orchard, but it happened at a different time of year. Denise explained the difference. “The 1989 freeze was in January after a warm period,” she said. “Temperatures warmed up and the trees started to come out of dormancy. Then the temperature dropped and frigid air blew in. In 1935, it was an early fall freeze and the temperatures got cold before the trees were dormant. The leaves turned brown but didn’t fall off. Cherry trees normally turn beautiful fall colors, but that year they turned brown and didn’t fall off the trees because the freeze had killed them.”

Denise said frost protection is essential in Washington, and the orchards there are equipped with sprinklers and wind machines. “Here in Montana, we’re on the side of a mountain,” she said. “Most of the time the air is either going up the mountain from the lake or coming down toward the lake. It’s rare that it settles and we get a frost.”

Pruning throughout winter helps manage the following year’s crop. The orchards in the two states are in different climate zones, which helps distribute both the workload and the crop. The cherries in Washington bloom in April; the Montana cherries bloom in May.

The first cherries to ripen are Bing cherries in Washington, and picking begins in early June. In Montana, picking begins toward the end of July. “In Montana, because the weather is cooler, we can usually pick through most of August,” said Denise. “We start at the lower elevation because those cherries ripen first and move up as cherries on the higher elevations ripen. We also have several varieties with later ripening dates.”

All cherries are hand-picked, but Denise said they’ll consider adding mechanical harvest when it’s available. “It’s becoming more of a priority because labor is a lot more challenging,” she said. “My dad has tried different harvest methods with sweet cherries.”

Like other fruit growers, the Bowmans watch cherries carefully for insect and disease damage. The main insect pests are the western cherry fruit fly and spotted wing drosophila (SWD). “The SWD attacks more than cherries,” she said. “It’s also more resilient than the western cherry fruit fly. We’ve increased trapping and monitoring and have read what others have found to be successful controls.” The Bowmans are aware of resistance issues with available pesticides and use products carefully to avoid the problem.

One viral problem in cherries is little cherry disease, but the Bowmans haven’t seen it in their orchards. Denise said they’re more likely to see powdery mildew and brown rot. “Powdery mildew happens when it’s dry, and brown rot likes a damp environment,” she said. “Brown rot isn’t a problem in Washington because it’s drier there, but here in Montana, the humidity is higher and we see more rot.”

In addition to selling fresh cherries, the Bowmans have developed several added-value products. In the past, cherries were processed at a nearby cannery, but the family started canning themselves last year. “By the time we’re ready to pick cherries here, the packing sheds and canneries in Washington are putting their cherry equipment away,” she said, adding that her family cans the Montana cherries. “They switch from processing cherries to whatever the next fruit is ready.”

Denise’s mother makes cherry jams in small batches in an on-farm commercial kitchen. “She also started making cherry tarts to sell at our stand here,” said Denise. The family has always maintained an on-farm store that started as a shed on the side of the road. “The Flathead Lake region is a tourist area, so a lot of people on their way to Glacier National Park will stop in to shop.”

Another product is cherry juice, which the Bowmans have been producing for a while. “We recently got a pasteurizer, and the juice is much better quality than in the past,” said Denise. “Before, we had to cook it before we could bottle and seal it. With the pasteurizer, the juice is only at a high temperature for about seven minutes or so. Cooking the juice changes the flavor, but pasteurizing for seven minutes at 185º retains the fresh cherry flavor.”

When the Bowmans realized customers were purchasing cull cherries to make wine, the family decided to make wine themselves. Her father researched the wine-making process, and is successfully making three wines.

“People have a variety of wine preferences so we developed dry, medium and sweet wines,” said Denise. “Like everything else, it’s a process of following the regulations and getting a license. We can sell almost everything we make, but until we can produce more, we’ll continue to sell it at the store. We sold more wine last year than any other year.”

In addition to the potential for more wine production, the Bowmans plan to optimize the canning process. “We want to get it down to a science,” said Denise. “Right now it still feels a little bit experimental, but it’s been successful so far so we want to keep increasing production. Hopefully we’ll be able to sell canned cherries at other locations.”

While their cherry canning process is moving along well, Denise said it’s a matter of constantly reworking the system. “It’s like anything else,” she said. “Find solutions to problems as you go, or find other equipment to help do things more efficiently. That’s what farming is all about – figuring it out as you go and learning.”

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