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POLSON, MISSOULA and POLEBRIDGE – The famously sweet and juicy Flathead cherries are at the epicenter of a partnership between three different companies in western Montana, and the end result of their cooperation is a sweet treat that delights visitors to the Polebridge Remote Mercantile on the border of Glacier National Park.

Gateway Orchard near Polson, which has been in business for almost a century and has been in the same family since the late 1970s, begins the process. They work hard to grow their famous Lambert cherries, despite constant headaches like this year’s historically cold spring, fruit-loving bears, labor shortages, hail, forest fires and weak profit margins.

After harvest by migrant pickers who brave the summer heat and smoke to do the work, the tasty crimson-hued fruit is shipped to the nonprofit Western Montana Growers Cooperative in Missoula, which works with a processing plant food in Ronan. The cherries are pitted and frozen to retain their freshness.

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Then the cherries are shipped to the historic Polebridge Mercantile, where owner Will Hammerquist and his team use them for their Flathead Cherry Bear Claw, a pastry hugely popular with tourists and locals alike, just like the famous Claw bears with blueberries. (The pastries are shaped to look like a giant bear’s paw, in case you didn’t have one.)

It takes a lot of logistics and a lot of work from all three companies, but anyone who’s tasted bear claws or seen them fly off the shelves of the crowded Mercantile on a hot summer’s day would agree that it worth it.

Jim Engelsberger, who runs Gateway Orchard with his family, grew up on the property and has grown and picked cherries all his life.

“We have some of the oldest and most traditional cherries that the valley is famous for,” he explained. “That’s what Will (Hammerquist) likes. That flavor of yesteryear. That’s what we have here, because we have very good soil.

Engelsberger said this spring was probably the coldest they’ve had in 100 years, meaning his trees have less than half the fruit they normally would. Moreover, they matured much later than usual. But a frost that washed away cherries in Washington this spring means flathead cherries will be coveted, and therefore at a higher price, this year.

“We take each day as it comes and try to make tentative plans, especially in Montana,” Engelsberger explained. “As my father used to say, there’s always next year’s harvest.”

On Friday, he began his harvest for the year, with just one cherry picker working for him on the first day.

Dressed in a hoodie, light blue jeans, beige boots and a white bucket strapped around his chest, Alonso Quirarte, a seasonal worker from Yakima, Washington, picked up a cherry tree atop a 10 foot ladder.

Despite record temperatures in northwest Montana, the scorching heat hasn’t stopped 70-year-old Quirarte from being able to do his job.

“In Washington, it’s much hotter than here,” he said. “Lately, the temperatures have been very high there. On-site water is mandatory when doing this job.

Quirarte makes a living picking cherries from various orchards and farms in the Flathead area during the summer months. When it’s not cherry picking season in Montana, he harvests other types of produce such as apples, strawberries and berries all over the West, primarily in his current state of Washington.

After immigrating to California from Jalisco, Mexico with his father when he was 19, working in the fields has been a big part of Quirarte’s life for the past 50 years, he said. .

For most of that time, he was hitchhiking on trains from California that took him and other seasonal workers to northwestern Montana, particularly the area of Flathead, for working in the fields.

“I like my job when the harvest is good because you get paid more,” Quirarte said. “I came [to the U.S.] because I needed to find work. Fieldwork is something I picked up quickly when I arrived in California.

Quirarte said he can normally pick an entire cherry tree in about 10 to 15 minutes, which he says is slower than the average young picker.

“There are people who are much faster than me,” he said. “My friend Martin, who to me is one of the best pickers I know, can pick about 98 cases of cherries at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s almost $700! People like him are one in a million.

Quirarte said younger generations and people moving to the country continue to accept picking and harvesting jobs like his in order to earn a living. He said that although there are fruits and vegetables to pick, there will always be people ready to work in the fields.

It’s rare to see other Americans doing jobs like Quirarte’s, which usually brings low pay, no benefits, and requires long hours in the sun and physical labor for hours.

According to reports from the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Labor, 73% of all agricultural workers are foreign born, with 69% from Mexico and Central America and 27% from the United States and of Puerto Rico). The report also shows that the average age of agricultural workers has increased since 2000.

Quirarte said this year’s cherry season hasn’t been great. The amount of ripe cherries was much smaller than last year, he said.

“It’s rare [cherry] year, but you have to choose what you can for a living,” he said.

Depending on the price he can get for the cherries, Englesberger can pay a picker between $7 and $10 for each box of about 20 pounds of cherries picked, and some pickers can pick several boxes per hour.

“He can outplay a lot of 20-year-old guys,” Engelsberger said of Quirarte. “His generation is dying, unfortunately, and I don’t know what America is going to do. Many people don’t realize when they’re in the store who picks their fresh fruit and all the work that goes into it. »

Getting cherries picked on time isn’t the only challenge.

Bears are a constant threat to eat their fill of cherries for free at the orchard, as they are extremely smart and can find ways to get past the electric fence.

“I had to kick out a mom and her little ones the other day because they ate too many cherries,” he said. He thinks they either tested the fence when it shorted or climbed a tree and dropped a branch to get over the wires.

A Polebridge Mercantile employee holds one of the Flathead Cherry Bear Claw Pastries on July 3, 2022.

However, he will be able to send between 2,000 and 3,000 of his cherries to be frozen for the bakers at the Polebridge Mercantile. Owner Will Hammerquist said customers couldn’t get enough of the pastries.

Over the 4th of July weekend of this year, visitors from all over the world lined up from early morning until evening to grab pastries and stock up on coffee and other snacks.

A patisserie is not just a patisserie in Polebridge. The Mercantile is about an hour’s drive north on a mostly gravel road from Columbia Falls, and people are often exhausted and hungry after a day of hiking or paddling as they stroll through the Mercantile. Many eyes lit up at the sight of a fresh bear claw, frosted on top with a few chocolate chops, sitting on the counter.

“They’ve been very popular,” Hammerquist said.

Hopefully any customers who bite into the tasty treats will appreciate all the hard work that went into making it happen.

“There are people who are much faster than me. My friend Martin, who to me is one of the best pickers I know, can pick about 98 cases of cherries at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s almost $700! People like him are one in a million.

— Alonso Quirarte, 70, seasonal worker from Yakima, Washington

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