Thanks to a recent grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture, one of Montana State University’s agricultural research centers will deepen its explorations of small fruits and berries as options for Montana producers and consumers.
The Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis is one of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s seven statewide research centers, part of the field research arm of the MSU College of Agriculture. The Corvallis center focuses on horticultural and fruit-related research.
Professor of horticulture Rachel Leisso will lead the project, along with research superintendent Zach Miller, program coordinator Bridgid Jarrett, assistant professor Mac Burgess of the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and Wan-Yuan Kuo, an assistant professor of food product development in the College of Education, Health and Human Development.
“Cold-hardy berries and small fruits remain an exciting opportunity for Montana growers to reap high-value crops from small acreages by tapping into both fresh and value-added markets,” said Leisso. “Which varieties are more palatable to the consumer? We’re trying to get some hard data on that with our new collaboration in this grant.”
The project will focus on several varieties of cold-tolerant berries including haskaps, which are native to parts of Russia and Japan; domesticated saskatoons, also known as serviceberries, which are native to North America; aronia, which is known for its medicinal qualities; and sour cherries, which are popular for their juice. Some of those varieties are better to be bought and eaten fresh, while others are better for processing into products such as medicines, wines and dyes.
The new project will follow up on research begun by Miller and Burgess in 2015, which identified those species as potentially successful in Montana’s climate. The plants from those trials are now mature, and the focus will shift toward filling knowledge gaps about the space for such crops in consumer markets and for growers.
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“On the research end, we want to pursue better understanding of how to store haskaps and saskatoons for fresh market purposes longer,” said Leisso. “There may be greater return for our growers when they’re bought fresh, and we try to keep the growers at the forefront of our work.”
The team will also examine which varieties within each berry species are most popular using consumer acceptance tests and determine measurements of the fruits’ quality for various uses, such as sugar concentration, acidity and brightness of color for dyeing potential.
The final part of the project will be a partnership with MSU Extension in Ravalli County and the brand-new Montana Berry Growers Association, created in conjunction with the research. That group, along with Extension and the faculty at the Western Agricultural Research Center, will work to develop marketing opportunities and identify topics of interest to berry growers in advance of a workshop to be held in April 2020, another iteration of a similar successful event held last spring.
There are some uncertainties to exploring new crops for Montana’s producers, but Leisso said that’s what the research centers are for: navigating uncertainties so that growers don’t have to do it on their own.
“Market development is a tough thing to quantify, but a lot of it involves outreach and exploring growers’ questions,” she said. “It’s really easy to get carried away in the excitement, but planning is essential, and our partners in Extension and other outreach organizations are critical tools in connecting growers to the resources that can help them the most.”