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Montana Cherry Growers Uncertain About Immigrant Labor

An undated image from Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Co-op page
Flathead Lake Cherry Growers

With the Trump administration working toward tougher enforcement of America’s immigration laws, some cherry farmers in Montana wondering what that may mean for this year’s harvest.

There are some 6oo to 800 acres of cherry orchards on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. Marilyn Bowman owns one of the biggest and oldest. Each year is different, she says. 

"Anything in agriculture is a gamble."

But this year, Bowman tells me, over dessert of cherry pie at the annual Flathead Lake Cherry Growers spring meeting, in addition to cherry powdery mildew and other pests and blights, she’s a bit worried about whether the migrant workers, who usually come for two weeks in August to pick her cherries, will actually show up.

These pickers live full-time in Washington, but many of them are Hispanic, and Bowman isn’t sure if they’ll choose to come to Montana in light of recent crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.

"It's really hard to say if they're going to be afraid to come or not," Bowman says, "because a lot of them like to come to our area, whether they're documented or undocumented. I guess if they have problems in Washington we'll find out there’s problems there, then possibly we'll have problems here."

Some of these pickers have made the trip to the Flathead Valley for so many seasons that growers consider them family, but even so, deportations sometimes happen, and if a grower is caught hiring workers without correct documentation, they can be fined.

Brian Campbell coordinates the harvest for the 70 members of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers cooperative. He says finding good workers for harvest is always a scramble.

"Current administration might have something more to do with it, but it's actually something that's been slowly simmering along and every year, it's like someday we're going to crack down on this," Campbell says.

At this point in the season, Campbell says it’s too early to tell if this will be the year they do.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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