Huckleberry Industry Sees Jump In Sales
These are sweet times for the Montana huckleberry industry.
Sales of jam, syrup, candy and other Montana products made with huckleberries grew to $1.5 million last year, up from $980,000 in 1990, according to the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
The Montana huckleberry industry began in the 1930s. Today, huckleberry products can be found in just about any Montana gift shop.
In addition to the traditional lineup of sweets, there are huckleberry salad dressings and barbecue sauce, berry-enhanced soaps and lotions, berry beer, and potholders and towels decorated with pictures of huckleberries.
The business bureau recently studied the industry. The findings are summarized in the summer issue of the bureau’s magazine, Montana Business Quarterly.
The Montana huckleberry industry got started when people searched for work during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Berries were picked for canneries in the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys, but the work tapered off after World War II as jobs in fields such as logging and construction opened.
The industry of today draws a good share of its business from tourists who want to take home a taste of Montana. Sales of huckleberries have been boosted through the “Made in Montana” program run by the state Department of Commerce.
“People think of Montana as a good, clean, interesting place,” said the department’s Rebecca Baumann. “They are eager to see the ‘Made in Montana’ sticker. It enhances sales.”
The novelty of the huckleberry and nostalgia for a simpler time of things homemade contributes to the success of the industry.
Some people buy the jam because it reminds them of their childhood, said Pamela Gates Seiss, whose family has been in the huckleberry business for nearly 50 years.
Eva Gates Homemade Preserves in Bigfork began when Seiss’s grandmother cooked up a few batches of huckleberries and the preserves were sold to local stores.
The Gates enterprise started seeing competition in the late 1970s. Now Montana has 14 major producers of huckleberry products, and most of the operations are in western Montana.
One of the more unusual products is the Wild Huckleberry Wheat Lager made by Great Northern Brewing Co. in Whitefish. Most buyers are tourists.
“People figure, ‘Hey, I’m in Montana, I better try huckleberry beer,”’ said Kate Greenlee, manager of the brewery. “It’s a novelty, something they’ve never tried before.”
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