Fruit farming

Bob Thaden, who operates Tongue River Winery, a vineyard of fruit for wine in eastern Montana, often shares his knowledge of growing fruit and making it into wine.

Bob Thaden, who operates Tongue River Winery, a vineyard of fruit for wine in eastern Montana, often shares his knowledge of growing fruit and making it into wine.

Knowing how to grow fruit in the Northern Plains, where fruit needs to be able to withstand often-bitter cold winter temperatures, takes planning.

Bob provided some pointers for potential growers:

  • Know your water rights and have a good water source. In addition, it is important to know what the water pH is and whether a filter will be needed.

Drip irrigation is best for the plants because the water is able to be placed exactly where it is needed.

  • Growing degree days can vary, and growers should keep a history of the first full frost and last spring frosts. It will help determine the frost-free days in a zone and what varieties of fruit can grow there.

“You will want to know how much summer heat you can get to grow hybrid grapes, like the University of Minnesota grapes or the upcoming NDSU grapes when they are released, or hybrids like Crimson Pearl,” Thaden said.

Some fruits like cherries or haskaps take less time to ripen.

  • Knowing your growing zone is important.
  • Take a soil test each year to know your soil type and soil pH, and what fertilizer is needed.

“Alkaline soils are hard to neutralize,” he said. Sulfur can be added, but it takes time for microorganisms to break down sulfur.

It is best to use chelated fertilizers for alkaline soils, either by granular spreading in the rows, fertigation through the irrigation lines, which is what the Thadens use, or spraying on leaves (which works with iron).

For those with acid pH soils, lime can be added to bring up the soil pH, if that is what the fruit requires.

“We also do tissue testing in late spring or early summer,” Thaden said, adding they take a sample from a leaf. “It will tell you what actually got into your plant.

 “We use propylene fencing that is 7.5 feet tall,” he continued. Some of the fencing has been in place for 15 years, with minimal repair needing. “If you have deer, you need some sort of fencing.”

In addition, bird netting is needed to keep out birds.

“We use full overhead netting and create a room out of our fencing. It is a little nicer to use, as long as you take it down before the heavy, wet snow arrives,” he said.

Bob netted his two rows of carmine jewel cherries at the end of June this year.

“They were starting to color up and we wanted to make sure the birds didn’t get in,” he explained. Other pests, such as larvae of moths and hornworms, can eat grape leaves.

“The best thing you can do is keep your vineyard clean. Burn or remove your cane prunings so they are not on the property,” he added.

  • There are some insects that can attack harder fruit.

“You can lose many pounds of cherries and other harder fruit from flies and other insects,” he said. There are some sprays available for growers.

At the MSU Western Ag Research Center, researchers have had some success with sprays.

“For cherries, we found if we harvest cherries early at 12 percent sugar, we can often beat the fruit flies,” Thaden concluded.