Growing berries for the many growing wineries in Montana and North Dakota takes a high-quality berry.
“There is a ready market and increasing demand for local fruits and fruit for wine,” said Zach Miller, Montana State University’s Western Ag Research Center (WARC) superintendent and assistant professor of horticulture. “The wine and vineyard industry in Montana and North Dakota is really starting to explode.”
Cost can be a deterring factor to small acreage producers/growers who grow fruit for wine.
“Growers in Montana and the Dakotas are going to be serving primarily local markets, and whenever you serve those local markets, it is difficult to compete on cost,” Miller said. “But growing very high quality fruits give our growers an advantage and an entry into that local market.”
Rachel Leisso, WARC assistant professor of horticulture, uses specialized testing equipment to help with variety comparisons. The equipment conducts certain specialized measurements on each variety and gives other experimental data.
Growers need to know which variety of a particular fruit would grow best on their farm, with its soil and climate, so comparing one cultivar to another is important.
“The growers want a variety that their consumers want to pick up and taste, and buy, and buy more of,” Miller said.
WARC also works with Kathy Wiederholt, NDSU fruit project manager at the Carrington Research Extension Center in Carrington, N.D., who is also evaluating fruits for wine-making and other end-uses.
What fruits make good wine?
Many of the growers in the Upper Northern Plains states are interested growing a fruit other than grapes for wine, because they can grow “interesting fruits that don't grow as well in warmer climates.”
These growers need to know the chemistry and other technical aspects of the fruit.
“Growers need to know if they have a possibility of growing a high enough quality of fruit that it can be made into a good wine or other fruit products,” Leisso said. Testing equipment at WARC can test quality.
Increasing demand for haskaps
A cold, hardy fruit that's catching on with growers in western Montana is the haskap (or honeyberry), an edible honeysuckle fruit.
WARC conducts an ongoing variety trial for haskap fruit.
“A haskap looks like an oblong blueberry, and tastes somewhat like a cross between a blueberry and a raspberry,” Miller said. The fruit has high antioxidant value, higher than blueberries, which makes it more appealing to the ‘health’ market.
Like other cold hardy fruit, producers will start getting some production in the second year, but much more at four years.
“Our better-yielding varieties by the fourth year are producing 4-9 pounds per bush, which is very good,” he said.
Blueberries and huckleberries need more acidic soils (pH 4-5) to thrive, but haskaps do well in neutral or more alkaline soils (from 6-8 pH).
Haskaps are “super cold hardy,” and can withstand winter temperatures as low 30 degrees below zero and as low as 18 degrees during bloom.
“Haskaps are delicious fresh or frozen and make an excellent juice, jams, and wine,” Miller said.
Some wineries in Montana and the Dakotas offer haskap wine. For example, both Tongue River Winery near Miles City and Dakota Sun are making haskap wine.
While very cold hardy, producers can have problems with haskaps if the weather suddenly warms up in January.
“The main thing we’ve seen with haskaps is it is susceptible to winter warm periods like those we can get with Chinook winds,” he said.
Those warm periods in January or February could wake up a haskap bush in winter, and make it more susceptible to injury when it becomes cold again.
“We’ve only seen damage in early blooming varieties have we seen damage, and it is minor. But the whole plant does not die, and it bounces right back,” Miller said.
Aronia an interesting fruit for wine
Other fruits that producers in the Bitterroot Valley and other regions are growing for wine include black and white currants, raspberries, and rhubarb (a best seller for Tongue River Winery).
Aronia is another cold hardy fruit that makes excellent wine.
“Aronia is used a lot in landscaping because it has really pretty, dark, fall-colored fruit,” he said. “It makes a very complex, interesting wine.”
Growers like raising the fruit because it has been good for production on the farm as value-added agriculture.
“It spreads out risk, helps diversify the farm, and it spreads out labor, ” Miller said.
Mechanical harvester big innovation
With these specialty crops, there often is no combine, so not having to harvest all the crops at once is a major help.
That often means picking by hand, but WARC is testing out a new invention that could cut down on labor.
“One of the big innovations we have tried this year is a mechanical harvester that is a simple, homemade shaker,” he said.
The harvester is something that many people have tinkered with over the years, but WARC built on that after discussions with many producers and others throughout the region.
The shaker has an attachment that shakes the trunk of the bush. It shakes the bush and the berries fall off onto a kid’s swimming pool or tray on the ground.
“In some of the berries, we have gone from 20 minutes of hand harvesting to a couple of minutes using the shaker,” Miller said.
They have found the quality of the berries is improved with the use of the mechanical harvester.
“You aren’t getting all the squished berries and finger prints from hand picking,” he said, adding they demonstrated the harvester at field days this past summer.
Several producers and wineries have indicated they want to start using it.
Pest management important
In addition, the numerous fruit and apple variety trials at the center have demonstrated what producers have needed in terms of pest management.
Bird netting is the most important pest management tool for growing berries.
“Birds will decimate a crop, especially in a smaller orchard,” Miller said. “Simple bird netting put over the bush can prevent that.”