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HELENA – Though Montana is an agricultural state dotted with wheat and alfalfa fields, the body of knowledge about growing fruit here lags far behind. 

Montana State University launched a fruit tree cultivar research project in 2013 testing varieties of apples, pears, plums and sour cherries at 10 locations across Montana. The project aims to close the decades-old research gap and provide orchardists information on potential fruits that could succeed in Montana’s climate.

“(Fruit is) missing in our local food system, so how do we go out and promote it if we haven’t done any of the research that says this will grow here?” asked Brent Sarchet, Lewis and Clark County extension agent.

A trip to the local farmers market demonstrates just how little fruit is grown in the state, he said.

The research is funded mostly through a Specialty Crop Block Grant and a Growth Through Agriculture grant through the Montana Department of Agriculture totaling more than $33,000. The project uses locations ranging from Helena and Bozeman to Colstrip and Fort Belknap.

“Montana is a huge state with all kinds of microclimates in the state that gives all kinds of opportunities to raise all kinds of different types of fruit crops, so we need to check that out,” said Department of Agriculture director Ron de Young.

At Johnson Orchard in the Helena Valley late last week, Sarchet and Toby Day, MSU horticulture extension specialist, toured rows of well-known tree varieties of apples and pears, as well as fruits high in antioxidants called super fruits, such as the little known hascup.

For Helena, the research showed the best apple varieties as honeycrisp, sweet 16 and Carroll. The best pear varieties to date were golden spice, John’s and pioneer. Information on the other fruits was not available, and plantings are still being phased in.

“Put into an orchard type situation, our climates in Helena or Bozeman do pretty well, but a place like Colstrip has been pretty tough – basically we have places that are fruit deserts,” Day said. “It’s a great opportunity to start looking at other cultivars or things we can grow in Montana for some of these niche markets.”

Cider is one of the biggest niche markets, with many larger Montana cities starting to see cider houses, he said.

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“That’s where I think we’re going – once we get some of these cultivars we can start looking at planting techniques and maybe do what Washington has done,” Day said. “There is a possibility in certain areas where you could actually have 100 acres of apples if we could figure out that market.”

Wine makers looking for something to blend with their grapes also create a niche market for the super fruits, Sarchet said. Many of the people interested in growing fruit likely do not see it as a sole crop, but as a good opportunity to earn extra income, he added.

“It’s really hard to predict the future – our climate is changing fairly dramatically so to actually allow producers to adapt to that we’re encouraging as much diversification as possible,” de Young said.

A challenge with the MSU study is that the interest in growing fruit has coincided with the research, and the extension service wants to get the information out to growers ready to put trees in the ground immediately, he said.

“The research phase is really important right now … if a private landowner wants to put in some apple trees or pears or some Saskatoons or whatever, they know whether they’ve got a shot at it or not instead of spending money and finding out that wasn’t the right move,” de Young said.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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