When most people think of western North Dakota they think of oil, cattle, badlands and-did I mention-oil. Few associate the western edge of the state with horticulture and local foods. However, Sarah the intern and I got a glimpse of the local food scene when we traveled west for a business trip/family visit.
We loaded up the car with garlic & kids and set out. The four hour drive to my parent’s house near Watford City took six and Sarah discovered how much fun it is to travel with children. I was always told to make my trip count and we did just that-picking up an antique sink for the granary along the way that I had found for sale on Bisman.
The main purpose of the trip was to volunteer for hops harvest at the Williston Research Extension Center (and to see my family of course!) We left bright and early the morning after our arrival. The traffic from Watford City to Williston was not bad at all with the new bypasses in place around Watford and Alexander. What we found when we got there was an oasis of green in an otherwise arid region-the Williston Research Extension Center.
It is here that Kyla & Kim conduct research on some of North Dakota’s lesser known crops-grapes, onions, vegetables, hops. We were there to harvest hops but enjoyed snooping (and sampling) some of the other research they have going on. Sadly, produce theft is a big problem for them. They GIVE away a lot of produce after they have collected data on it but there are people that insist on taking it before it can be measured and evaluated. This is unfortunate as the results of their research are important to growers and gardeners in the state. In fact, I grabbed one of their research reports and look forward to reading it this winter when I am making decisions about what crops and varieties to plant in the future. I bet you probably didn’t know about the horticultural research they do there but it is really a public service and an asset and I encourage you to check it out.
The hopyard at WREC is part of a variety trial that started last year. Beings they have so many hops plants, they purchased a mechanical harvester. Part of my motive for volunteering was to see the machine and how it works as we intend to purchase a harvester and I wanted to see this model in action.
The bines we were to harvest that day had already been taken down at the tops. The trellises there stand about 20’ tall. You have to cut the bines off at the ground to send them through the harvester, which we did as we went. The hops harvester has only been produced a couple of years now so there were a few kinks I am sure they are working out. However, considering the alternative is hand picking, the machine is pretty great. Any time you start to mechanize there will be pros and cons.
The bines get hung on these hooks that are attached to a chain that pulls them through the harvester. This chain runs on a hydraulic motor and the speed is adjustable. We kept it on the slowest possible speed as that seemed to get the most cones off without damage. The rest of the machine runs off the PTO. One problem we noticed was there is a blower that’s speed does not appear to be adjustable without speeding up the whole thing-including the wire cylinders that spin to knock the hops off the bines. If you were handy you could probably put this onto its own motor so you could adjust it and possibly eliminate some of the leaf garbage that gets in with the cones. There were also a few places where the cones were bouncing onto the ground but this could easily be fixed by adding some additional guards. It took around 3 minutes to send one bine through the harvester and two people could run it. Each bine had a few cones still clinging to it that needed to be picked by hand. There was a fair amount of leaves mixed in with the cones that we had to pick out later. However, Kyla said that this problem has been improved on their newer model. It is one thing to see a machine on a website or video but I really feel like I have a better understanding of the machine now, its pros and cons, and how it works.
Kyla joined us for lunch at the Williston Brewing Company. They had a screaming deal of $1 beers-basically any beer craft, bottle, draft was $1. Too bad there was more work to do so we had to stick to one beer. I tried a fresh hop beer in honor of my first harvest. Oh yeah-did I mention-the food was good too.
The second item on the agenda was to market some of our garlic and other products in Watford City. It is my hometown and it is fun to sell my stuff to friends, family, and acquaintances “back home.” I had some deliveries to make and we set up shop at the farmers market. They have a more informal one in the bank parking lot on Thursdays. I heard rumors of some new ideas being thrown around for a farmers market in Watford City-like making it more of an event at the Heritage Park perhaps-an idea that would
be super cool.
There were five vendors there. A couple of elderly ladies with some baked goods (I had to buy some pumpkin bread and cookies), a guy that convinced me that chard is the new kale, Tom with his famous hot mix (he sells over 200 jars a year), some ladies with jellies and pickles, and us. OK so I bought something from everyone else there-and I enjoyed it. A steady stream of customers cleaned out much of our garlic, all of the potatoes we brought along, most of our chokecherry syrup, and a few bags of onions. One guy happened to be a plumber and remarked on the antique sink we had in the back of our vehicle-he climbed right in and gave me some good info and history of it. So glad I made my trip count! We were happy with our sales and I enjoyed visiting with people I haven’t seen in many years.
We learned a lot about the local food scene in Western ND on our short trip to the not-so-wild west, like how to mechanically harvest hops and that there are people out there just like us bringing local foods to their hungry customers.