One warm July morning I drive into our cherry orchard in my fire-engine-red pickup truck, with mud flaps that proclaim "Big Sky Country," the state's nickname. I look and feel like a farmer in my jeans, boots and straw cowboy hat that has been run over by my tractor several times.
I gaze across Flathead Lake below the orchard and clearly see the other shore 15 miles away. The lake is calm and bright blue, as is the sky. The sun is just above the mountains behind our orchard of 1,000 trees. The leaves are all bright green and, with the reddening cherries, the orchard looks very lush.
I check a large pile of smoldering branches pruned in the spring which I started afire the previous day. I notice that the fire is almost out and decide to use a six-gallon can of gasoline for my tractor on the brush which seems a safe 30 feet away from any smoldering ashes. I take the gasoline and start pouring.
Suddenly there is a loud boom. Flames shoot out of the can and up from the branch pile about 20 feet into the sky. Both my arms are aflame and my beard and the hair on my head are burning. I let out a loud scream, fall onto the ground and roll around. The flames go out within seconds, but know without looking that I am badly burned. My face feels hot and my arms ache. I see globs of skin hanging from my arms and raw flesh.
I drive to the house of a neighbor and soon I am in the hospital in the town of Polson, a 16-mile dirve. Later, Dr. John Harlan, who treats me, remarks, "I bet it was a lot safer working for The Wall Street Journal." I have a lot of time to reflect on that while hospitalized for five days, right at the beginning of our first cherry harvest season.
The fire is just one of the setbacks our family faces after moving to Montana for a change of lifestyle from New York and Washington, D.C., where we lived for almost nine years. I worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal most of that time and my wife, Sheila, as a social worker for hospitals and nursing homes.
It was financially secure living in the East, but we tired eventually of the hassles, crowds, pollution, traffic and job pressures. I also tired of the unreality of Washington political life and the stody atmosphere of The Wall Street Journal office there.
As the frustrations mounted, we heard the call of the West. Sheila and I grew up in Montana and frequently vacation there. So at ages 34 and 32 in late 1977 we decided to give up our combined incomes of more than $41,000 a year for a change of lifestyle. More and more persons leave the cities in search of a better life and millions dream of it. We decided to do more than dream.
I noticed ads for cherry orchards for sale on Flathead Lake, a scenic area near Glacier National Park in western Montana, and yearned to move to the land to farm. We went to Montana in the summer of 1977 to look at orchards. In October, we bought one, quit our jobs, sold our house in a week and a half and moved.
"Where did the idea of a cherry orchard come from?" Shelia writes in a diary she keeps of the venture. "I really don't know. All of a sudden it appeared. Les has always loved the area around Flathead Lake. It really is beautiful."
After two years of rural life we find that it isn't as idyllic as we wanted to believe. To be sure, the air is clean, there aren't any traffic jams here and we camp and hike often in nearby Glacier National Park. But there are realities to farm life we didn't expect, and our venture is a lesson in how not to leave the cities for the land.
We lose much of our first crop when too much rain damages the fruit. A severe winter later kills many cherry trees and branches in the orchard. We discover a disease in the orchard. Cherry pickers are sometimes hard to find during harvest. Financial problems set back plans to build a house. Since the orchard can't support us, Sheila and I both find other work and I even collect unemployment compensation for a while.
The down payment on the $82,000 orchard of 10 1/2 acres, the move across country and the first year of operation and living expenses were financed by savings, profit from our house sale and cashing in of a Journal profitsharing plan.
Montana was attractive to us because it is just about the last frontier left in the lower 48 states. The state today is mostly virgin compared to most places and we often take advantage of it.
We bought a small fishing boat and use it often. We also go tent camping in Glacer and Yellowstone Parks and enjoy the hiking, cross-country skiing and viewing of wildlife. One day a moose runs across the road in front of our car. Another day, we see two brown bear cubs scamper up a tree while their mother stands guard underneath until we are out of sight. On a 10-mile hike into back country, Shelia and I climb to Sperry Glacier and view mountain goats as we walk through the snow in August. We often see bald eagles, deer, elk and coyotes. t Bears even eat leftover cherries in our orchard.
But Montana life isn't all cherries and cream by any means. I find out that we only own half interest in a water well on our orchard, something the salesman didn't mention and which wasn't on the report of the title company. We also discover that we can't get bank financing for a house we want to build at the orchard because our land is mortgaged.
Also, our first day at the orchard, blanketed with snow and the leafless trees looking bleak, is marred by a confrontation with a neighbor. We see a truck taking a short cut through the middle of the place to get to the highway. I tell the driver not to cut through, but the neighbor yells, "The hell with you. I'll remember this," and drives off in a huff. I later post no trespassing signs, but we continue to have problems with the man crossing various jparts of the property and finally end up chargin him with tresspass in both civil and criminal cases.
Other problems we face are the result of lack of knowledge about farming. I researched the cherry business extensively before buying the orchard and continuously afterward, but no books tell you how to buy a good tractor. We go to country auctions to look for a tractor, find one at the cut rate price of $1,125 and then discover it needs a complete overhaul which costs $850.
"This is a good running little tractor," claims the rancher who brings it to the auction. "I bought it from a widow who was selling her farm. She said it was recently overhauled." In fact, it had only been repainted and tuned.
Next we find our orchard has a disease the seller doesn't tell us about, a fungus that attacks the roots and threes and ends up killing some of them. Although the disease is found in many orchards, there isn't much that can be done except treat the infected ground after a tree dies with an experimental chemical and replace the trees with ones that are more resistant.
But rural life isn't all bleak. In our first spring on the orchard we get a refund of all the federal taxes withheld the previous year at our jobs because of various farm tax breaks. Although we spend all apring cultivating the orchard, fertilizing the soil, planting new trees and pruning, the real baptism was the tax loophole.
But the tax breaks are only good if you have some income. The first year we don't have much because of that ageless enemy of farmers -- bad weather, which will continue to be our biggest problem.
The signs first come in kwinter when the areas gets the most snow it had for about 10 years. The trees should be pruned in winter when they are dormant, and I end up pruning on snowshoes in February and March and don't finish until late spring.
In May we have bad weather again. The trees have to be pollinated by bees (since most variesties of cherry must have cross-pollination from another type tree) and we rent 10 hives while the blossoms are out. The trees don't get pollinated well because rainy weather keeps the fickle insects from doing their jobs. All the orchards have the problem and estimates are that the trees have only 60-70 percent of the normal crop. At our orchard that means that instead of 45/50 tons of fruit, the trees will have only about 30 tons.
The weather turns bad again in summer and I begin to sympathize with the ever-complaining farmer who, at the mercy of Mother Nature, has a bumper crop one year and disaster the next. In June and early July too much rain falls.
The rain is absorbed by ripening cherries and causes them to crack and become unsaleable. It is becoming obvious that our first crop will be a very poor one. Then about 10 days after the rain damage I am injured in the fire. While I am in the hospital it rains hard again, cracking more cherries, and I know that our venture in Montana is in jeopardy.
In an attempt to minimize the harm, we and other growers hire helicopters at $3 a minute to fly over each row of trees to blow the water off the fruit before it is absorbed. It can mean the difference between a total loss and some crop. Because so much of the fruit ends up being damaged, we hire school school kids to sort it out after it is picked and before we send it to a packing plant, where it is storted again, sized and packaged for shipment.
Cherries are picked by migrant workers who start the season in California and move northward with the crops to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana for the late July and early Augst cheries. They include both whites and Chicanos. some illegal aliens.
Before the harvest, I try to find out the historical problems of migrant workers by reading John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." I had qualms about buying the orchard because I didn't want to use poorly paid and housed workers. But we find out fast that the situation has changed much from Steinbeck's time.
The workers arrive driving pickup trucks or campers, sometimes new, or pulling large travel trailers with their cars. They stay mostly at private and state campgrounds along the lake and make a point to get in and sunbathing while they are here. They are choosey about the orchard they work at and look over the trees for ease of picking and volume.
"Some of them come here for a semi-vacation and don't intend to work full time," says one cherry grower. The work is for only two weeks or so and is much easier than the stoop labor in the hot sun of California vegetable fields, he explains. Some pickers, though, aren't any better off than in Steinbeck's day. In most states with longer picking seasons and larger crops than Montana, the migrants still live in poor housing and the constant travel, especially with children, is a poor life.
We quickly find that the Mexican pickers work much faster than the white workers and pick more cherries. When they leave, we learn that four were illegals, with papers for vacation but not work. Illegal migrants are commonplace, but most growers don't ask pickers for papers since labor is sometimes hard to get.
The pickers work on 12- and 14-foot ladders they move around each tree and put their cherries into metal buckets strapped around their shoulders. They dump the cherries into wooden boxes stacked under each tree. They are paid 7 1/2 cents a pound.
We sort out the damaged cherries -- about one of every five -- and haul the good fruit to a loading dock of the packing plant, the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Assn., a co-op to which we belong. (The fruit is all sweet, table-eating cherries sold on produce shelves and non are canned.)
Our sorting goes on often until 9 at night and we end up working 14-15 hours a day. Sheila writes in her diary: "I never worked so hard physically. Every day is a challenge to keep up with the pickers and sorters. pAt night the only thing that makes me happy is to come home, take a shower and go to bed."
Some pickers complain that since the trees don't have many cherries on them work is difficult and not too lucrative. Some quit after a day or only a few hours' work. I go each day at sunrise to a trailer office of the state employment service to look for help.
We end the 1978 season by leaving much fruit on the trees and by picking a total of 25 tons, throwing away five tons and selling 20 tons to the plant. One saving merit is that the price is high, but we gross only a meager $12,000. Our operating expenses for the year, including wages, run more than that. In addition, we have major one-time expenses of buying a truck, tractor and other equipment. The loss on the orchard leaves us with nothing left to make our annual $9,700 payment on the place.
"I have a real love-hate realtionship with the orchard," Sheila summarizes in her diary. "Now we have to start looking for work again." We consider selling the orchard, but manage to make the payment from our savings. Sheila gets a part-time job in nearby Polson as a social worker and gives up a plan she has to open a small yarn and needlecraft shop. I teach journalism in the fall as a visiting lecturer at the University of Montana and in the winter collect some unemployment compensation while I look for a job.
The orchard problems don't end. In late December and January the area gets an unusually prolonged cold spell, 20 below zero and more, which damages the trees. Flathead Lake freezes over for the first time in 10 years, preventing the water from having the usual warming effect on the orchards along the shore. The result is much dead wood on trees and many killed trees in most orchards.
By spring, with the trees pruned and the orchard fertilized, I get a job after searching all winter, as an extra in a movie being filmed here. In summer, I leave the movie business and try my luck at our second cherry crop.
I chop down dead trees and prune branches killed by the previous winter's cold. We end up losing 50 trees and probably an equal amount in branches from other trees. "Cherry trees just love to die," notes one grower.
We spray our trees with pesticides to attack another enemy, the cherry fruit fly, which, I learn, can infest a cherry crop and render it unsaleable.
I prefer to grow cherries organically, but that isn't legal here. The state requires spraying in the summer for fruit flies or an orchard's entire crop will be condemned.
Some state officials try to reduce the amount of spraying by urging that it be done only after fruit flies are found in traps in a grower's orchard, but the packing plants require a spray every 10 days from mid-June through July, or a crop won't be accepted.
I reluctantly accept the economic realities of spraying. A local doctor once refused to spray and the state threatened to cut down all his trees so they wouldn't infest others; he gave in.
The harvest goes more smoothly than the first one. We don't get any rain and there is no need to sort cherries in the orchard this time. We have 25 to 30 pickers working at the peak. But labor is a problem again.
Many pickers rotate from orchard to orchard looking for the easiest work. One, a hobo-like character who comes in on a freight train carrying a bedroll and leaves us for another orchard, later admits. "They're all about the same." Many of the migrants draw their wages daily so they are free to go when they want. Some pick enough only to get gas money to the next job.
Some of the workers are productive and reliable. Three Chicanos we hire pick 40 to 50 of the 20-boxes of cherries a day earning up to $75 daily each. They sleep on the ground in the orchard and I manage to borrow a tent for them. They pay back the gesture by offering us beer at the end of the working day. They cook out on a open fire -- beans every day.
There is much discrimination against the Spanish-speaking migrants by white workers. Most refuse to talk with them and many resent that they can pick extremely fast and in hot weather.
We finish the harvest in 12 days without a major hitch. Instead of the 14- to 15-hour days of the previous year, we work only 10 to 12 and feel relaxed by comparison. We finish ahead of schedule and pick over 40 tons of cherries, a good crop but not a bumper one. The damage from the winter had cost us about five tons of fruit.
We gross over $26,000 on the cherries, but after the orchard payment, wages and other expenses, we have perhaps $5,000 at the most left over for a whole year's work.
Since I can't find enough work here to supplement our income in the winter (when unemployment is high due to seasonal layoffs in the lumber industry) and Sheila can get only a part-time job, we consider selling the orchard. Our mind is made up when throughout the summer we continue to have problems with a neighbor trespassing through our orchard with cars and equipment and harassing us. We decide to sell the orchard and find jobs or start up a business elsewhere.
We list the place with a local realtor and try to sell it ourselves. Although it isn't w way to make a living, it would be a good investment for someone with other income. We run an ad in the Wall Street Journal that says: Montana Cherry Orchard A good producer and great tax shelter in western Montana's scenic cherry-growing and vacation country. About 1,000 cherry trees on 10.45 acres, including a building site with panoramic view of Flathead Lake. $129,000 with equipment.
I should have added: Great hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, boating. Glacier Park is your backyard. Kids love it here. You can see deer elk, moose, bears, eagles. At night in winter you will sometimes awaken to the barking of dogs. And in the morning there will be deer tracks all around the house in the snow.