When thinking of Montana, it is easy to conjure imagines of rolling wheat fields and hills dotted with cattle. Montana is an agriculture state and predominately row crops, hay and livestock have been the dominating commodities.
The Western Montana Ag Research Center (WARC), located in Corvallis, Mont., just received funding through a Montana Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant. Their goal is to further explore the potential of commercial berry production in Montana.
Research initiated by Zach Miller and Mac Burgess in 2015 established that certain varieties of berries, like haskaps, saskatoons and sour cherries, can in fact grow well in Montana. This current round of funding will be a spin off of that project as researchers now try to understand if it is possible for a fresh berry market to thrive in Montana. Project leaders will also look at labor requirements and consumer acceptance.
Rachel Leisso, assistant professor of Horticulture at WARC, sees potential in a fresh berry market in Montana. For example, there have been some preliminary consumer taste tests of haskap and saskatoon berries at local farmer shares this past summer, and they were well received.
“The berries added a lot of diversity to what people normally get in their shares,” Leisso said.
Leisso was quick to point out however, there is much more to berry production then whether or not consumers like them enough to eat them.
From a production standpoint, growing berries is a commitment. Most of the varieties that Miller and Burgess originally studied take somewhere between two and four years before the fruit they bear is large enough for harvest.
“You make a large investment up front, but those plants should last you 30 years,” explained Bridgid Jerret, small fruit program coordinator at WARC.
Currently, in Montana, there is very little commercial production of small fruits outside of sweet cherries in the Flathead Valley, so Leisso, Jerret and the rest of the research team, are truly sailing out into relatively unmarked territory. One major question they would like to answer with their research is how long can berries be stored fresh? They also want to look at the potential of harvesting berries mechanically and how that could impact their marketability.
Although Leisso and Jerret are cautiously optimistic about berry production in Montana, they advise potential producers to really do their research before diving into the process. Developing a marketing strategy and exploring the economic viability of berry products will be crucial to the success of the crop in Montana.
Researchers at WARC are excited to act as an information source to potential growers, but they don’t have all the answers, not yet at least.
“We’re proving that it can be done and I think it is up to the individuals to determine if it is financially reasonable,” Leisso stated.
This is the third round of funding centered around small fruit production in Montana since Miller and Burgess got the project off the ground in 2015. Leisso estimates that after next summer, the project will have two full seasons of data collected and the research team will be in a position to answer some of the questions presented to them within the scope of the grant.
“At the end of next summer, we should have some more concrete publications on fresh market potential and consumer preference,” Leisso said.
It is an exciting time for value-added agriculture commodities and with Montana’s vast tourism industry, both Leisso and Jerret agree there is potential for a uniquely Montana berry industry.