DARBY - It was all about apples as the Montana Agriculture Value-Added tour made a stop in Darby.
Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark told MTN News, “Montana is just full of great people that have great ideas.”
Clark is traveling across the state to see Montana Made products.
“This is part of the governor’s bigger vision for value-added agriculture," she explained. "We tend to be an agricultural economy that ships a lot of raw product and we’d really like to see that middle step grow.”
That middle step — adding value — is taking a raw locally grown product like apples and turning them into Bitterroot-made hard cider as the final product. “And Lee is a great example of that,” Clark mentioned while nodding toward Montana Ciderworks' owner Lee McAlpine.
McAlpine began the first Montana cider operation, Montana Ciderworks in 2002 and with Clark and others in town from Helena, he gave an educational tour of her small batch production, showing she goes from apples to hard cider.
With the Trapper and North Trapper peaks towering above, McAlpine grows seven different kinds of apples in her orchard which fall into four categories: sweets, sharps, bitter-sharps, and bitter sweets.
"Blended cider is the way to go, in my opinion, because you get all the nuanced flavors," McAlpine said.
Once the apples are ripe, they are pressed, fermented, and carbonated. The process takes a few months to complete and then, the cider is bottled, labeled, and ready for drinking
In the fermentation room, McAlpine shared that the Bitterroot Valley has a deep-rooted history with apple growing.
"The earliest record of apple growing in Montana was in the late 1840s when Fathers Ravalli and DeSmet planted an orchard near the state’s first settlement of Stevensville in the Bitterroot Valley... By 1890 the mining camps and growing settlements in Butte, Helena, and along the Great Northern to Canada were driving demand for Montana apples, and the Bass Brothers shipped their first carload of apples. In 1890, orchard yields ranged from 2,000lbs (J. Silverthorne) to 100,000lbs (Bass Brothers). The Montana Apple boom had begun!" - Montana State University, Montana's Early History of Apple Production 1840s-1890s.
Clark believes Montana producers are looking to grow themselves.
“As we’re out traveling around talking to people that maybe have more of a conventional farm or ranch, they’re looking for ways to expand those operations,” she shared.
The tour continued in the Bitterroot later on Wednesday, September 6, 2023, in Victor with a stop at the Hidden Legend Winery.
McAlpine has loved her tenure as a cider maker but is seeking to retire and sell her business.
She is open to discussions with interested farmers.