Commercial huckleberry pickers tend to get a bad rap. After all, they are picking our berries. But are they?
Let’s look at another side of the issue of commercial huckleberry picker published on the Flathead Beacon website.
Jim, a grizzled 63-year-old commercial huckleberry picker, cracks his second 16-ounce can of Budweiser of the day. He knows it’s not quite 7 a.m. yet, because the news hasn’t wafted through the scratchy speakers of his trusty FM radio with the twisted wire antenna. His slight frame rests in his favorite folding chair. Long, scraggly, gray hair and a matching beard envelop the face of a man who likes his privacy.
With cracked fingers, calloused from decades of under-the-table mechanical work, he rolls another cigarette and thanks God for the passing rain storm after two weeks of hot, dry weather. He knows from 30 years of experience picking huckleberries commercially, the combination of sun and rain will bring a plentiful purple harvest, and more cash in the pocket of his one-size-too-large Levi’s.
Flathead Valley restaurants and other local buyers pay $40 to $50 per gallon of huckleberries. The sweet, dark purple, antioxidant-rich fruit are a major vein of Montana’s tourism industry. While huckleberries grow in abundance on the steep, thickly forested mountain sides of Northwest Montana, decades of research have yet to successfully domesticate the marketable crop, leaving the laborious task of harvesting huckleberries in the wild to commercial pickers like Jim.
The lucrative, generations-old practice is secretive by nature. Many of the huckleberries that make their way into hundreds of Montana-made products every year are harvested within the 4.6-million-acre expanse of the Flathead and Kootenai national forests. Pickers are tight-lipped about the specific locations of the best huckleberry patches. …
Interestingly, Jim is really no different than you and me — just a guy trying to make a living doing something he loves.