Keeping small acreage farming intact, as well as supporting both the ag and tourism industries in Montana, is especially important to one research center that happens to be surrounded by beautiful mountains.

Part of Montana State University’s Western Ag Research Center (WARC) mission in the southwestern region is assisting producers/growers with high-value, small-acreage fruit and vegetable farming.

“We’re hoping to preserve some of our better irrigated ag lands in our more populated valleys,” said Zach Miller, WARC superintendent and assistant professor of horticulture. “At the same time, we are hoping to tap into the economic opportunities of combining our states two biggest industries - tourism and agriculture.”

While urban development can be challenging, the heavily-populated areas in the region are a ready market for local fruits and value-added products like cider and wine.

Berry production requires more patience than traditional farming because growers need to wait four years to get up to full production.

But the WARC cold hardy berry trials in their fourth year of trials are “finally mature.”

“In the second and third years, growers see some production, but by fourth year, growers can see typical yields of 6 to 10 pounds per plant,” Miller said. These varieties are planted at 1,000 plants/acre, so “that adds up to 3-5 tons an acre.”

“That’s why producers need to know in advance if the fruit they plant will taste good and be marketable,” he said. “They can’t wait four, five years, and find out it doesn’t.”

With the tourism industry, Montana wineries have shared with the WARC staff that some of these unique fruit wines sell well to tourists.

“Montana wineries are looking for fruit wines because they can sell it to tourists from California, Washington and Europe,” he said. “It is uniquely from the Northern Great Plains and it is an interesting souvenir to take home.”

New faculty member at WARC

At summer field days, Miller introduced a new MSU faculty member, Rachel Leisso, WARC assistant professor of horticulture. Leisso is working with Miller and other staff members at WARC.

Along with other center staff, they talked about the over 50 different variety trials for cold hardy berries that were being evaluated, along with grapes and apples.

“It was an exciting field day because many of our plantings are hitting their stride,” Miller said.

Not only are the variety trials grown to be compared for yield, but Leisso said, “the berry varieties must taste great, look good, and have excellent end-use quality.”

Fruit variety trials include haskaps, red and black currants, aronia, serviceberries (the commercial and more juicy types called saskatoons) and dwarf sour cherries (a new type of bush cherry that does well down to Zone 3).

The trials are conducted at WARC in the Bitteroot Valley, and near Kalispell, Bozeman, and Helena to enable comparison of plant growth and fruit production at different locations.

“Some varieties might do well at Bozeman, but not at Helena, for example,” Leisso said.

New lab equipment determines quality

While fruit growers for wine cannot compete with the large companies on price, they can compete with growing high quality fruit.

With Leisso’s position, the Department of Research Centers provided funding for new lab equipment.

The new lab equipment helps growers by testing their fruit to see if it reaches that high quality and to understand how other factors, like growing conditions, contribute to high quality fruit.

Leisso is evaluating fruit quality parameters, including checking for flavor and nutritional compounds for fresh eating and other end-use processes, such as winemaking.

“Processors need to know the quality of the fruit they are getting for wine-making and other types of value-added products,” Leisso said.

The center is also obtaining other equipment that will take a variety of measurements important to end-users, including flavor quality measurements (how good the fruit is; how sweet the fruit is and how much sugar content is in the fruit) and how well the fruit stores.

Different climates for different fruits.

Fruits in the Northern Great Plains grow in a variety of different climates, and producers need to know which varieties do best in their particular climate.

“One of the big challenges in a state like Montana is the climate is really different in each county or each mountain valley,” Miller said.

WARC grows so many varieties of different fruits that at least some could be grown almost anywhere in the state.

“We need to give growers information on which varieties do well in our environments and our soils, and which ones are going to taste good,” he said.

One major reason for WARC’s extensive variety trials is the cost of starting a vineyard in Montana. Even as a secondary crop, costs start at around $30,000 an acre.

“Orchards tend to be costly, with the preparation, irrigation, and bird netting, and they require a lot of labor,” Miller said. “But the potential is there for good returns, mainly because there is a ready market for local fruits and vegetables and wineries that are looking for quality fruit for wine.”