Correction: This story has been updated to correct spellings and names of certain berries mentioned in this story.
Berries are a pretty unusual crop in Montana, better known for beef cattle ranching and grain and pulse production. But historically, Montana produced a great deal of fruit -- mainly apples, but also cold-hardy grapes and berries.
Now, there’s a push by a new generation of growers and researchers to revive those bygone fruit crops as well as to discover new varieties and uses.
Mark Rehder is making kombucha out of berries he and his wife grow on their 10-acre farm in Livingston.
“There’s about 4 varieties of black currant and one of the red and a few raspberries bred to be larger than the native currants,” he says.
Rehder was a market gardener for 30 years, but he’s new to berry farming – and to brewing kombucha, the popular fizzy, fermented tea.
"The yeast hang off the bottom... it looks like a jellyfish," says Rehder.
He’s one of a growing number of Montana farmers planting berries from the rich river valleys in the west to the expansive and sparsely-populated prairie in the east. There’s even a new Berry Grower’s Association that formed this spring.
The idea is to diversify the state’s agricultural economy by tapping into the locavore movement and to preserve its higher-quality agricultural lands, the irrigated valleys close to urban centers.
Some even see it as a hedge against climate change.
For Rehder, it’s adding value to a crop he loves to grow in a place he loves to live.
"Each step in the processing will give you a little more economic benefit. What we’re really selling is the fruit in a liquid form to drink,” says Rehder.
Zach Miller is assistant professor and superintendent of the Montana State University Western Ag Research Center in Corvallis where his team is developing high value, small acre crops like berries.
“So in our superfood berry trials, we have haskaps, red and black currant, dwarf sour cherries, saskatoons, aronia and also elderberry. And we've got about 50 different varieties of all of those that are planted here at the station,” Says Miller.
Miller estimates the total acreage under berry production outside of the Research Center to be less than 100 acres, which, he says, is more significant than it sounds.
“In five or six years when those orchards are mature, a lot of the berries in our trials are producing 10 pounds per bush and there's a thousand bush per acre. So that five tons per acre times a hundred acres is 500 tons of berries, which even if they're selling it wholesale for two, three bucks a pound it would be, would be a major ag sector,” he says.
But, of course, then you have to sell them – and quickly. It’s for that reason many berry producers grow in the irrigated valleys near urban centers.
“With any fruit, you're going to make the most money if you can sell it to a fresh market. Berries, for example, if you're selling fresh direct, you can get $8 to $10 a pound. If you're selling to a processor, like a juice maker or a winemaker, you'll get two to three bucks. So to be close to those consumers and sell as much as you can fresh is key,” says Miller.
A changing climate may widen Montana’s berry growing areas further.
“As the climate's warming, you know, a lot of those traditional fruit growing regions are really finding it challenging to continue to grow fruit because it's so much warmer there. There's a trend and if that trend continues, Montana may be even better positioned to increase our market share,” he says.
Travis Greenwald owns Hilltop Haven Farm in Missoula. He planted his first few rows of saskatoons while building his house about a decade ago on rangeland that’s been in his wife's family for 50 years.
“It's very much like a sweet, nutty blueberry,” says Greenwald.
Today he has around 600 plants on less than an acre. Greenwald markets his saskatoons through a growers cooperative and at a fresh market. Occasionally, they go to a chef or winemaker.
“You know we'll take our berries to the market and hardly anyone has heard of saskatoons,” he says.
So, for Greenwald, the future is clear: educating Montana’s masses on just what the heck a saskatoon tastes like.