CORVALLIS, Mont. - The Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis has opened a new chapter in its work to help farmers and ranchers in southwest Montana.
Established in 1907, the station is the oldest of seven Montana State University Ag stations in the state. There was talk of closing it because farm and ranch acreage has decreased in Ravalli County. But the station received a great deal of community and statewide support.
The center now has a new superintendent with a vision to enhance research on specialty fruit and vegetable crops.
"We need to produce enough food in a way that is profitable for farmers," said Superintendent Zach Miller, "in ways that we can keep doing that for decades and decades, and hand our farms and ranches off to our grandkids in better shape than when we got it."
Western Ag was founded in the hey day of the apple boom, when the Bitterroot was home to more than a million apple trees, with fruit being shipped all over the country.
When most of the orchards were depleted, there were new efforts to research row crops, like cereal grains and sugar beets, which grew in abundance in the valley for decades.
In later years, the center gained prominence for biological weed control research to combat noxious weeds.
Ravalli County's farm acreage may have decreased. But it still maintains close to 263,000 acres of total farmland, which contributes to the state's $4 billion agricultural industry.
The center is nestled on the east side of the valley, on about 30 scenic acres, just north of Corvallis.
Montana State University Ph.D. Professor of Horticulture Miller has done plant research on the American prairies and in tropical rainforests. The Bitterroot offers a new challenge.
"Fruits and vegetables, crops that you grow on small acreages," said Miller, "which we have a lot of in this area of the state."
Miller sees a vibrant and diversified agricultural system in the valley.
Take the Honey Crisp Apple. "We may have the best climate in the country to grow those kinds of apples," said Miller.
He said research here can pave the way for farmers to invest in new crops.
"And we can pass that on to an aspiring farmer," he said, "who wants to grow that, and they'll know for sure that they'll be able to reproduce our results."
The center is working to produce quality, cold hearty wine and table grapes.
Chickens till cover crops of peas and grass to make more fertile soil for next year.
We met up with farm foreman Bill Fleming on the tractor. He is building up the soil in his work.
"I'm seeding buckwheat and sweet clover into wheat stubble," he said.
Ladybugs eat pests on eggplants in the greenhouse.
Workers were busy combing through lush plants, like peppers, and even grapes. There is continued work to improve grain crops so common on Montana's landscape.
The new director wants to bring more faculty and more graduate students here.
"So we can really address the diverse agricultural needs of this area of Montana," he said.
The research center is holding its annual field day for the public next Tuesday evening, with visiting faculty, tours and a BBQ.