Growing Berries in Montana
My farming partner-in-crime, Cathy, and I went to Missoula yesterday for this:
The event was sponsored by the Montana State University Western Agricultural Research Center and Montana State University. We were part of a group of about two dozen people, some with new commercial berry-growing operations, some hoping to start one, and some—like me—simply interested in learning more. I was not disappointed. The meeting was well-organized and every single presenter had solid, practical information to share. The focus was mostly on the lesser-known berries such as aronia berries, saskatoon/serviceberries, currants, haskaps/honeyberries, dwarf sour cherries, and elderberries. The Ag Research Center is doing extensive work on cold-hardy varieties for commercial growers. They have research plots in several areas of the state, including an organic one here in Kalispell at the community college.
My big takeaways from the meeting were these:
Berries are a huge untapped market here. One of the afternoon panel discussion members was the head of a growers’ cooperative. He said they had more than enough kale last season and didn’t need any more of that (to much laughter), but that they could have sold three times the amount of berries if they had been available. The demand is there, mostly from restaurants, but the supply is not. That sentiment was echoed by a woman who started selling homemade jams and jellies at farmers’ markets and whose business grew to the point that she now has to source berries from Washington state to round out the supply she gets from Montana.
It is not cheap to grow berries. The estimate given was $30,000 an acre in startup costs, most of which are in infrastructure. A lot of the discussion time was devoted to fencing, bird netting, and pest control, although no one mentioned the usefulness of a .22 for keeping ground squirrels from decimating everything.
I would have liked to see more of an emphasis on organic practices and less use of herbicides like RoundUp, but I am glad the experimental plot here in Kalispell is organic.
Work needs to be done in the area of consumer education. Some of these berries are quite popular in Canada and Europe (and the Europeans love currants) but relatively unknown in the US.
I doubt we’re going to start any kind of commercial berry-growing operation here at Chez Schuster-Szabo, but the way the universe has been jerking me around recently, who knows? For now, I am sticking with the currants Cathy gave me and I may order some haskaps and elderberries.
I will also note that even though this is a libertarian-leaning household, I do recognize that there are some things that government does well, mostly at the state and local level. I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to keep the government out of our lives, with mixed success, and I get very impatient with people who believe that more government is the solution to our current societal ills while completely overlooking the fact that government caused most of them in the first place. I am happy to see my tax dollars being used for programs like this one, which aim to help Montana entrepreneurs get their products into the marketplace.
Thank you to everyone who ordered grocery bags. I so appreciate the support! The first batch is sold out and I am into taking orders for subsequent batches. We have an 80% chance of rain all day on Friday, so I’ll be devoting that time to assembling the next group of bags. I need to take advantage of the nice weather today and tomorrow and spend time in the garden moving the lavenders and getting peas planted.
And here is a beauty shot of one of the bags, as requested:
The label says “Buttercup Designs.” More on that in tomorrow’s post.