Big Sky Small Acres Banner

Featured Landowner: Apples Bloom Again in the Bitterroot

When most of us think about Montana-grown fruit, Flathead cherries come to mind, but turn south from Missoula, and you will find Montana’s apple belt.

2015 Winter
by Zach Miller
Western Ag Research Center

The Bitterroot Valley, stretching from Missoula south to Sula, was once carpeted with orchards. Today, apple production is resurging on small acreages in the valley. A diverse group of growers, from century-old family operations to young farmers planting their first orchards, see opportunities blooming for Montana-grown apples.

Drive the back roads in the Bitterroot to see pastures dotted with 100-year old apple trees. These are the gnarled remnants of the Apple Boom. With a long growing season and plentiful water, early settlers recognized that the area is well-suited for growing fruit. After the last original inhabitants, Chief Charlo’s remnant band of Salish who were forced to move north to the Jocko Reservation (present day Flathead Reservation) in 1891, the copper baron Marcus Daly began buying land, building irrigation ditches, and planting orchards. Daly’s concern was feeding the miners in Butte and Anaconda, but those who followed had larger aspirations. Real estate investors began buying land cheaply, establishing orchards, putting in irrigation, and selling the promise of an easy and profitable small farm.

During the apple boom, orchards increased to 300,000 apple trees by 1900. By 1920, there were nearly 750,000 apple trees covering 10,000 acres. The valley was known for producing high quality apples, especially McIntosh, which were sold in markets across the country. But a boom, by definition, does not last. Apple production dwindled as pests, including the coddling moth that had been absent in the early years, finally arrived. There were pests of a different sort as well. Local fruit growers were often swindled by middlemen who never paid after the apples were shipped east.

Today, amidst pioneer trees of the Apple Boom, old orchards are thriving and new orchards are sprouting. Modern management practices deal with the pests that forced growers to abandon their orchards in the 1920s and 30s. Growers are again producing high-quality apples that meet increasing demand for locally-grown produce and hard cider.

Deepest Roots in the Bitterroot

One family in the Bitterroot has been growing apples for more than 100 years. Mountain View Orchards was started in 1909 when Charles Swanson established a small orchard near Corvallis. The orchard is now run by his grandson, Charlie, and his wife Julie. They’ve grown the operation into the largest orchard in the state, with over 20 apple varieties on 30 acres, producing around 12,000 bushels annually from more than 7,000 trees. Most apples are sold fresh at their farm stand, in local grocery stores, and to universities. The remainder make more than 10,000 gallons of cider annually.

Growing apples for the open market is a tough business admits Charlie, “It’s difficult to compete with our neighbor to the west (Washington) with all its infrastructure and labor.” Montana has few advantages, but one, according to Charlie, is that the Bitterroot can grow higher quality apples with varieties such as McIntosh.

“Retiring” into the orchard

Smaller orchards have sprung up around the valley over the last several decades. Often, these orchards are second careers for the growers. Currently, there are nearly 10 small orchards in the Bitterroot. These growers have found their niche in local markets with specialty varieties.

Healthy Harvest Fruits near Stevensville caters to the growing demand for produce that is healthy for the consumer, farmer, and planet. The owners, Jan and Frank Wehrli, grow their apples without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and are certified “Naturally Grown.” According to Jan, “growing this way really helps in the Missoula market and we have no problem selling out of our apples.” Getting started was a lot of work, according to Jan, “We added to the orchard bit by bit. Fifty to 100 trees at a time.” Now, the couple has over 800 trees and 27 different apple varieties. “We’ve retired into the orchard” says Jan, “but it’s an active retirement.”

A short drive down the road is another couple, Al and Mary Pernichele, who started growing applies as a second career. They purchased the 10-acre, FrostTop Orchard near Corvallis in 1998. They have expanded the orchard to over 3,000 trees consisting mainly of Spartan, McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Cortland, Fuji, and Jonagold varieties. Like the Wehrli’s, Al and Mary can’t grow enough apples to meet demand. “Demand has steadily risen. At the start, we had to deliver across the state. Now we can sell our whole crop direct from the orchard without any trouble,” says Al. He suggests it is not just increasing consumer preference for organically and locally-grown produce that’s driving increased demand, but that they are just plain better apples. Many varieties thrive in the cool nights and long days of the valley. “We can grow better-tasting McIntosh and Honeycrisp than the major producers in Washington,” Al said.

New wave of old apples

The newest orchards planted in the valley are filled with oddlooking apples with strange names, like Ashmead’s Kernel, Kingston Black, and Amere de Berthcourt. These are old apple varieties from France, England, and colonial America that are specifically grown for making hard cider. Demand for hard cider is growing exponentially, with consumption nearly doubling last year alone. Most of the cider sold is massproduced from damaged or leftover table apples from large commercial orchards. Craft cider, produced from high-quality fruit from specialty varieties is also becoming more important in the cider industry. “The situation for locally-produced cider now is similar to micro-brews in the 90s,” says local cider apple grower Michael Billingsley. “Craft cider is going to be huge. It’s even more local than micro-brews since the product is more closely tied to the fruit and to the grower.”

Two cideries already operate in the Bitterroot. Montana CiderWorks was the first commercial cidery in Montana. Operated by Lee McAlpine, near Sula, the orchard produces many cider-specific apple varieties and her ciders have won numerous regional and national awards. “We’ve always known we could grow great apples here in the Bitterroot,” says McAlpine. “Now we’re showing that we can produce world-class cider here, too.” A second cidery, Backroads Cider, located in downtown Hamilton, Montana, opened in the summer of 2015 and also uses locally-grown apples.

Cideries across the nation struggle to find specialty cider apple varieties, which are the key to top-quality cider. Michael Billingsley is an apple grower in the Bitterroot who is aiming to quench the thirst for cider apples. Cider apple production is a great way to make a profit on a small acreage, according to Mr. Billingsley. There is a clear demand. The inputs are less than table apples since the appearance of the fruit doesn’t need to be perfect and making cider adds value. “Value-added is the way to make it on a small acreage,” Billingsley says.

So the next time you think about fruit in Montana, remember the Bitterroot, its history of orchards, and those who continue that tradition. The best time to visit the orchards is in September and October. With over 70 varieties grown in the valley, you’re sure to find one you like.