MSU WARC launches new initiatives to support Montana horticultural industry

Jenny Lavey
CaptionMac Burgess, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, holds a turnip grown during the summer of 2016 at WARC.

CORVALLIS — For the last 109 years, the Montana State University Western Agricultural Research Center (WARC) has been nestled on the floor of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in Corvallis, providing meaningful research and education for the region’s agriculture producers.

The Bitterroot Valley has a long tradition of horticultural production, particularly within apple orchards, with some orchards that date back to statehood. One of these orchards, a Macintosh orchard that’s 121 years old, is located at WARC, according to Toby Day, MSU Extension horticulture specialist.

Today WARC has new facilities, as well as new staff and faculty who manage a growing research profile focusing on fruit and vegetable production for local markets and intensively managed small farms in Montana.

Zach Miller, WARC superintendent, was hired in 2014 and is leading the way for the center, according to Barry Jacobsen, associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station.

“There’s certainly a growing market for a deeper connection between local commercial business and local food producers for our restaurants, groceries and schools.” Amy Hutton, local produce-to-market food coordinator at WARC

“At the same time Zach was hired, the directive from our advisory boards was to focus on horticultural crop research,” Jacobsen said. “Since then, the center has been actively involved in establishing plantings and constructing new facilities so that we can answer horticulture research needs expressed by the community.”

WARC’s new research efforts are aimed at identifying varieties of fruits and the best ways to grow them, as well as working to expand markets for local fruits and vegetables. The center is planting new fruit trees, berries and grape varieties, in addition to research trials on grafted-tomato varieties, organic fertilizer and weed management trials, and annual strawberry production evaluations.

The Bitterroot Valley and much of Montana is seeing an increased interest in local food markets, according to Amy Hutton, local produce-to-market food coordinator at WARC. She added this reflects WARC’s growing local food-to-market profile.

“There’s certainly a growing market for a deeper connection between local commercial business and local food producers for our restaurants, groceries and schools,” said Hutton. “The Bitterroot Valley has the capacity to be a regional model that connects local producers to local businesses.”

Hutton is managing a produce marketing program on behalf of WARC. The program is managed in collaboration with the Loyal to Local Bitterroot co-op and funded by the Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Block grant. The new program supports marketing and distribution support for Bitterroot Valley farmers, with an end goal of jumpstarting an independent, farmer-run marketing and distribution program. The project has a new online sales platform,, which connects local farmers with interested parties who want to purchase local food.

“The program is in its infancy, though we’re working closely with area farmers and a host of local businesses,” Hutton said. “As a research center, we’re excited to be a main player in creating a food hub for the Bitterroot Valley that echoes the area’s agricultural legacy and current local food economy.”

According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, Ravalli County alone hosts nearly 16 different farmers markets as more restaurants and commercial businesses are looking to purchase locally grown products, including poultry. Hamilton is also home of a new poultry co-op processing center at Homestead Organics Farm, managed by the Montana Farmers Union, Montana Poultry Growers, Living River Farms and Lake County Community Development. To help producers take advantage of this new resource, WARC is also conducting a four-year research trial on integrating pasture poultry into vegetable rotations to improve soil health and offset costs of organic fertilizers.

Miller is managing a research project that also reflects a growing market in agriculture produce: berries that are rich in antioxidants. Fruits that are rich in antioxidants and health benefits are one of the fastest-growing food items in the country, according to the USDA. Miller is researching several berry varieties, such as the goji, haskap (or honeyberry), aronia and saskatoon berries. He noted the varieties are not widely planted in Montana, but fit this market niche. Miller added that many of these varieties may have the potential to be well-adapted to Montana soils and climate.

“Our goal is to eventually expand small fruit and berry production across Montana,” Miller said. “More and more consumers are looking to local markets for buying and selling small fruit products, and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station has the research capacity to support Montana farmers looking to tap into these growing markets.”

The center is gearing up to grow in support of that mission, according to Miller. WARC will be hiring a fruit horticulturist to complement the center’s growing fruits research. Last year, WARC was the recipient of much-needed new construction funded from the State of Montana which included a pesticide and storage handling facility, two greenhouse remodels and installation of an office heating system, Miller said.

“Many of the existing facilities are outdated for a modern research center’s ability to attract top-faculty and to fit the growing research and education needs of our community,” he said. “The building investment from the state has helped immensely to transform WARC for the benefit of Montana agriculture.”

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of the growth here,” Miller said. Of course, our growth and success is largely due to our local advisory committee and previous WARC faculty and staff that helped to establish this center as a critical source of research support for the state, and we hope to carry on that mission.”

WARC is one of seven statewide research centers associated with the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES). MAES comprises agricultural research of on and off-campus MSU faculty. The research centers are strategically located across Montana to allow research with different soil types, elevations, climate zones and landscapes, and a local advisory council guides the research at each station. The federal Hatch Act of 1887 authorized every national land-grant university to establish an agricultural experiment station, with research reflecting the university’s curriculum. The Smith-Lever Act in 1914 authorized the Extension Service. MSU College of Agriculture, Montana Agricultural Experiment Station and MSU Extension have been cooperatively serving the land-grant mission and the Montana public for the past 100 years.

–MSU News Service