“Come on, Bill,” Clarice Bush hollers back to her husband as she climbs a hill through her cherry orchard. Bill, cane in hand, follows behind until he meets his wife beneath the boughs of a Lapin cherry tree, weighed down heavily by clumps of the plump, maroon fruit.
Clarice pops a cherry in her mouth and continues down the row, stopping briefly to converse with a pair of pickers perched high on ladders, allowing them to reach the top-most branches.
She and Bill have owned Bush’s Jubilee Orchards in Bigfork for 56 years, but this year is different.
Instead of manning the orchard’s Lakeside stand, as she’s done for the past eight seasons, Clarice has found herself back among the fruit, tagging trees for pickers to harvest, turning on the irrigation, and yes, despite her 88 years, lifting 20-pound boxes of freshly picked cherries.
“The reason I’ve had to take it back over is we lost our son Dan in January of this year. He used to come and run it with my grandson … They would help me a lot,” Clarice said.
Daniel C. Bush, 63, died Jan. 30.
“He just had some terrible back accidents and he would not quit smoking, and he got COPD on top of that. It was just too much for him,” Clarice said. “We miss him terribly.”
Dan was a fixture at the orchard in the summer months for nearly a decade. While his back injuries prevented him from a lot of manual labor, he did whatever he could, including supervising and record-keeping.
“I didn’t know if we had the physical energy to run the orchard this year,” Clarice said, “but once we got started, you just get that cherry drive and away you go.”
That go-go-go mentality is what Clarice is known for.
Earlier this year, Clarice was busy tossing empty cherry boxes from the top of warehouse to her son-in-law, Paul Swanson, when Bill walked in.
“Why are we still doing this?” he asked his wife.
“And she says, ‘We started 59 years ago — we can’t stop now,’” Paul recalled with a grin. “She’ll never rest.”
As far as Clarice is concerned, as long as she’s physically able, the orchard will go on. She rises at 6 a.m. and finishes her day around 8 or 9 p.m. The daylight hours are consumed with walks in the orchard, irrigation and deliveries. In the evenings, Clarice is busy making calls, arrangements for the company’s two stands and dealing with employee paperwork.
“There’s a possibility we’ll lease out the orchard in the future because there’s nobody to take over my place … but I think we can do it next year,” she said. “Everybody helped us. When the irrigation went out, the fellow came down at 7 at night and changed the pressure gauges and got the pump up for us.”
Her daughter Julia Bush-Swanson said her family’s orchard, like other growers and farmers in the area, is in need of “young blood.”
“You create something and then what? Is it just going to die or will somebody else carry it forward? Usually it’s taken over by families and I don’t see it that way anymore. It’s got to be taken on by like-minded spirits,” she said.
Julia does what she can to help the family business by running the orchard’s Bigfork stand in the summers, while also selling her handmade herbal remedies, Julia’s Good Medicine. But at the end of the season, she’ll head back to Washington to continue running her herb business.
“My mom loves this lake, my dad loves this lake — I love this lake. I will be sad if we can’t keep it,” she said, with tears running down her cheeks. “I’ve been crying all day …. I leave tomorrow.”
Cherry season is notoriously short and will wind down for many growers in the valley in mid-August.
For Clarice, the orchard has been a dream come true.
She grew up in Missoula and remembers coming up to the Flathead to visit the lake, and of course, the cherries. So when Bill retired from the Air Force after a 30-year career as a missile commander, they began hunting for the perfect spot. In 1961 they found it and spent the next three years planting tree upon tree, transforming 11 acres of forested hillside into an orchard that is now home to 1,000 cherry trees and at least seven varieties.
But Bush’s Jubilee Orchard does more than keep the couple busy — it keeps them fulfilled.
“We’re physically able and you’ve gotta have something to do,” Clarice said. “At our age, they say if you have something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love, then you’re gonna be fine.”
And for Clarice, that something to do is actually a number of things: playing Bridge in the fall, wintering in Florida and, without a doubt, cherry season next summer.