Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published August 08, 2011, 05:30 AM

ND research project studies northern-hardy fruit varieties

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans grab most of the attention in the region.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans grab most of the attention in the region.

Kathy Wiederholt wants aronia, currants, elderberries and some other fruits to garner interest, too.

On a 2½-acre plot near Carrington, N.D., she’s testing different 14 fruits. What she’s learning can help to provide new economic and agricultural opportunities across the region.

Wiederholt is fruit project manager at the Carrington Research Extension Center. Launched in 2006, the project seeks to help both home gardeners and current or potential commercial fruit growers.

One of the project’s major goals is getting new or existing business to utilize the fruits.

“We hope that we can pique their interest in the fruits and then they will either grow them (the fruits) themselves or have other people grow the fruit for them,” she says.

The project has provided useful information to Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery near Carrington, proprietors Bruce and Merleen Gussiaas say.

The winery, the newest in North Dakota, makes wine from a number of fruits being tested at in the project.

Wiederholt is encourarging members of the North Dakota Grape Growers Association and Pride of Dakota (a North Dakota Department of Agriculture program that helps businesses market their products) to try the fruits, Wiederholt says.

Frozen fruit has been supplied to several businesses the state. Any established business that uses fruit — or just wants to learn more — can contact Wiederholt at Kathy.wiederholt@ndsu.edu.

Wiederholt figures she’s talked about the project to roughly 1,000 people across the state. She tries to be efficient in her speaking engagements, focusing on groups of 50 or more or on presentations close to Carrington.

Claudette Carlson, who lives in Minnewaukan, N.D., attended one of Wiederholt’s presentations.

Carlson was so impressed that she planted about 850 aronia, or black chokeberries, plants on land owned by her family.

Aronia, which produces nutritious, dark-blue berries, is native to North America. The plant was developed into a commercial fruit in Eastern Europe, and the commercialized varieties have been introduced into the United States in the past decade, according to information from the Carrington center.

Carlson expects to begin harvesting her aronia next summer. She plans to hire workers to pick at least some of the berries, in which area wineries have expressed interest. Some of the berries also might be picked by people who pay to do so.

Carlson says Wiederholt’s research has been invaluable to her aronia operation.

“Kathy is an amazing resource,” Carlson says.

Diversifying agriculture

Blaine Schatz, director of the Carrington center, says he started the fruit project after much thought and research.

He says other states have had success with locally grown fruit and that the project fits in well with the center’s mission: conducting research and educational programs to enhance the productivity, competitiveness and diversity of agriculture in central North Dakota.

Grain prices are much higher today than when the fruit project was launched, which presumably reduces interest in, and the need to, diversify agriculture in the state.

Schatz says there’s no guarantee that grain prices will stay high and that the fruit project remains important and useful.

Wiederholt sees good economic potential from the fruit. One plant can produce berries worth as much as $40 to $75.

“The caveat to all this is the expense for labor and time. Or you have to invest in a (mechanical) harvester,” she says.

She estimates a good harvester might cost $10,000 to $30,000.

Getting started

After Wiederholt was hired in May 2006, she started with grapes, juneberries, apples and plums. More land for cultivation became available at the center, and other fruit was added.

The fruit plots are inside a high, strong fence. As anyone familiar with rural North Dakota knows, deer can ravage gardens and trees if given a chance.

Once, 15 types of fruits were being tested. But Wiederholt dropped sea berries after she decided they were potentially invasive.

Wiederholt doesn’t micromanage the plants.

“I mostly concentrate on letting plants grow. Let them do their own thing. I do pruning in the spring. I keep them mowed, keep them weeded, do any kind of pest control. But most of these plants don’t have many pests, which is good,” she says.

“I also concentrate on promoting these plants to people, on being the outreach person,” she says.

Always learning

Picking berries at the right time is crucial.

“If you want to do wines or juices, you really do want them (the berries) to be at the perfect sweetness. So you’ve got to let them get right ripe before you pick them,” she says.

The fruit project had a good harvest in 2009. Last year, cold, wet and windy weather in the critical two-week bloom period hurt yields.

This year, weather in the bloom period was favorable.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to see with this project — how reliable are these fruits from year to year? It would be nice if you could count on a crop every year,” she says.

So far, “The juneberries have been good. The weather hasn’t been a factor for them,” she says

The aronia and cherries also have fared well so far.

Wiederholt’s goals include learning more about when the berries typically blossom, as well as when the berries begin to change color and the length of time from when they start to color until harvest.

“Nobody has a good handle on that,” she says.

Interesting

career path

Wiederholt is a part-time employee, funded in part with a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop grant.

Her background isn’t in horticulture, although she says she’s always loved plants. She’s a certified Master Gardener in Wisconsin.

Entering academia, “I was interested in microbiology, food microbiology — specifically dairy foods,” she says.

She went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. She also has a master’s degree in food microbiology.

“I studied yogurt cultures, cheese cultures, cheese-making,” she says.

Wisconsin, a major dairy producer, sometimes promotes itself as “America’s Dairyland.”

Wiederholt developed yogurt cultures for a Milwaukee company for several years. She later worked on human and nonhuman genetics at the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic.

In 2004, she and her husband, Ron, moved from Wisconsin to North Dakota.

Ron Wiederholt also works at the Carrington Research Extension Center. He’s a nutrient management specialist and also coordinates the North Dakota Discovery Farms program. Discovery Farms are working farms and ranches, the owners of which offer their operations as research sites to evaluate practices that minimize environmental impacts while maintaining farm profitability.

Initially, Kathy Wiederholt was reluctant to move to North Dakota.

“I didn’t know what kind of job I could have. I didn’t think there would be any science-type jobs. We lived here about two years and I didn’t have a job. I actually started making hand-made soap,” she says.

Lagging

other states?

Wiederholt says she doesn’t see as much enthusiasm for fruit in North Dakota as in some other states.

“Part of it may be our population. We don’t have the great numbers” of both potential growers and customers, she says.

“Maybe part of it is that our population is older and don’t see the value of paying someone for the value of their labor and crop,” she says.

Wiederholt is interested in researching more fruit, particularly pears. But the project’s small staff — just Wiederholt and a summer helper — works against that.

The center’s fruit plants were planted in 2006, and the first harvest came in 2009.

Collecting five years of production data on fruit grown at the center, which will occur in 2013, will be an important milestone and could draw more attention from potential growers, she says.

Already, interest in the fruit project is growing across the state, especially from homeowners, Wiederholt says.

“I’m just seeing more people who want to learn more about this. And that’s great; I really believe this project can be good for a lot of people,” she says.

Tags: