In the early 1900s, the Bitterroot Valley was one of the largest McIntosh apple-producing regions in the world, and fruit harvested from nearly a million trees was loaded on to massive horse-drawn carts, sent to packing houses and shipped out of the valley by the trainload every day.

A huge irrigation canal, the Big Ditch, was carved out of the east side of the valley using manpower, horses and a giantsteam shovel, and it provided nearly 80 miles of guided water canals from Lake Como. The local newspaper at the time called the Bitterroot area “The Valley of Perfect Fruit” and speculators tried to get people to buy land and start even more orchards.

But the “apple boom” came crashing down after hailstorms in 1922 and 1923, a late spring frost in 1924, and cheaper prices from Washington apple growers as years went by. Today, the Big Ditch still provides agricultural irrigation, but much of the water is used for the green lawns on the thousands of ranchettes that dot the valley.

Now, however, a small coalition of government agencies and small-scale farmers are trying to reclaim the Bitterroot’s lost glory as a premier agricultural region by growing apples for a different use: hard cider.

With roughly 4,000 apple trees of different cultivars between Florence and Stevensville, Michael Billingsley has one of the largest cider orchards in the U.S. The apples are pressed into juice, which is then fermented into hard cider at Western Cider Co. in Missoula. The fruit is selected for its tannins, acidity and flavor rather than appearance or crispness, so the apples are much different than would be found on a typical commercial orchard for juice or grocery store apples.

Hard cider is quickly growing in popularity as an alcoholic beverage alternative to beer and wine, and Western Cider is capitalizing on that with award-winning concoctions that they bottle and can.

On Wednesday, Billingsley hosted Ben Thomas, the director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, as well as a tour with the nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula, to learn about pest management, suitable locations and other factors that make a successful orchard.

The Montana Department of Agriculture recently gave a grant to Montana State University’s Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis to study apples. Katrina Mendrey, the orchard program manager at the research center, was on the tour as well.

“Many of the crops we research at the station in fact are for value-added products like wine, cider, nutraceuticals, etc.,” she explained. “One of the ways we help specialty crop producers is figuring out what to grow for our region and how to grow it for higher fruit yields, better fruit quality and lower labor costs so more energy is left over to focus on developing a good value-added product. It's often hard for any one person to be both the grower and the maker, though that is often the case.”

Selling apples to be eaten individually is tough, Billingsley explained, because people at the grocery store expect a big, blemish-free, crisp apple. To get big apples, Billingsley said you have to grow certain varieties and spray for insects and thin clusters on the trees to make the ones that are left grow bigger.

“For cider apples, I don’t care how big they are or if they’ve got holes in them,” he said. “I haven’t managed for coddling moths at all.”

Billingsley said he actually prefers a higher skin-to-fruit ratio, meaning smaller apples. He also has found that apples that most people in grocery stores would consider “rotten” or past their prime make great cider apples.

He grows a ton of different varieties of bittersweet and bitter sharp apples that wouldn’t make the cut for an eating apple for most people.

Growing cider apples gives him certain advantages, but managing an orchard is an extremely complex endeavor. Among other things, he has to worry about air drainage and fire blight.

He explained that many people think the river bottom area of the Bitterroot would be a great place to grow apples, but in fact it would be a terrible place. Orchards do better higher up on a slope with south-facing sun in order for the air to drain and keep freezing air from settling on the trees, which would ruin a harvest.

Fire blight, a disease that turns entire branches brown, has been the bane of Billingsley’s existence, as have voles.

“I grew Brown Snout trees, which grew a great cider apple, but it was extremely susceptible to fire blight and I eventually just had to rip all the trees out of the ground,” Billingsley said. “Fire blight is every orchard’s worst nightmare. And voles got into the orchard this past year, so I’ll have to put down vole guards.”

However, even with all the headaches, Mendrey said growing cider apples is a viable way for people in western Montana to get into the agriculture business. Montana’s cold nights and long summer days make extremely flavorful apples. She recently conducted a taste-test of Honeycrisp apples with a group of random people, and found that the one grown here vastly outperformed one grown in Washington.

“Fortunately for potential cider apple producers, there are several cider makers in Montana who would love to buy all their apples if given the opportunity,” she said.

The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula hosted the tour as the culmination of its 2017 “Farmer Field Days” series, which aims to connect aspiring farmers and ranchers with those who’ve been doing it a long time. Dave Renn, CFAC’s beginning farmer and rancher program manager, said that the goal is to give people wanting to get in the game an in-depth look at what works and what doesn’t.

“These workshops are geared toward people who are just at the beginning of their farm exploration — farm hands, interns, folks thinking about starting a farm in the near future, and those who are currently in the startup process,” he said.

Ben Thomas, the director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, said he was fascinated by Billingsley’s tour.

“This is a great opportunity to learn about the diversity of agriculture all over the state,” he said. “It’s great to hear this level of detail and how technology is helping farmers. I grew up on a farm, but it’s always amazing to me how much hard work goes into producing Montana’s agricultural products.”

For more information for beginning farmers and ranchers, visit farmlinkmontana.org.

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