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You Can Grow It: Is Idaho going nuts?

Jim Duthie takes us back to 2019 and a trip to Parma's annual Fruit Field Day where a new cash crop is being researched.

BOISE, Idaho — Every year right around Labor Day, the University of Idaho Research and Extension Center near Parma hosts its annual Fruit Field Day, where you can sample all of the new and improved varieties of fruits that Idaho has to offer. But due to health restrictions this year, Fruit Field Day isn’t open to the general public.

So, garden master Jim Duthie takes us back one year ago, where he learned that part of the horticulture research at the center has gone nuts! Literally! And nuts may be a new cash crop in Idaho’s future.

We all know that southwest Idaho grows all kinds of wonderful fruits and vegetables, and there are some new things that are being grown and tested here at the Parma research center for the University of Idaho. Things like almonds.

Fruit Field Day showcases the dozens of varieties of peaches and nectarines, plums and pluots, and apples and pears, as well as an endless array of different kinds of grapes. But Idaho’s thriving fruit industry may soon be going nuts. 

Among some of the new products being grown and studied here – walnuts and almonds, which could one day be alternative cash crops in southwest Idaho. 

There are always new types of fruit being tested here, like this variety of cherry called chromium. It’s native to western Asia, but it thrives here in Idaho. And these juicy, elongated fruits could become the next superfood, since they’re chock-full of antioxidants. 

Meanwhile, Idaho’s grape and wine industry has recovered from the severe winter damage of a few years ago, but that same extreme weather focused attention on two new varieties of grapes that not only survived the cold, but actually thrived. This one, called thomcord, is a hybrid of the popular Thompson seedless and Concord grapes, and consistently produces large clusters of delicious, juicy purple berries, regardless of weather extremes from year to year.

“After the third year of planting, every year, we’ve had a fairly good crop of this. It makes excellent grapes for table grapes, and excellent ones for juicing,” said Dr. Esmaeil Fallahi, UI Pomology Research.

And another variety, called alborz, also came through the extreme weather unscathed. It promises to be another highly productive cultivar that will help expand Idaho’s grape and wine industry. Here, Dr. Fallahi is experimenting with a new method of growing grapes. Under a lush grapevine canopy overhead, the vines are producing an amazing amount of huge clusters of tasty and juicy grapes.

“I think there is a lot of fun to grow grapes. And also an easy crop to eat. And it’s just a beautiful crop. Beautiful crop.”

And now there is an interesting and exciting potential for growing nuts here in southwest Idaho, particularly walnuts and almonds. These walnut trees are producing quality nut crops after only three or four years.

These almond trees have been thriving here even during recent extreme cold winters. And now, California almond growers are putting out feelers to expand that nut industry into Idaho, thanks to cheaper land and abundant water. And local growers are excited with the possibilities.

“So they can work together and it will be a kind of win-win situation.” 

Almonds grow in leathery hulls, or pods, that eventually split open as the nut inside matures. The nut shell dries out, and once removed, it reveals the almond kernel. And fresh almonds right off the tree are very tasty.

Almond hulls are a nutritious and inexpensive food source for cattle, which would also be good news for Idaho cattle growers and dairy farmers. And the dried almond shells can be used in landscaping as a ground cover, just like shredded bark.

The bottom line is that Idaho’s fruit industry is not only thriving, but looking to add new and different products to its line-up, and for home gardeners, at some point, you can grow it.  

By the way, Dr. Fallahi and his pomology program at the U of I has received top honors for his work in developing and introducing new fruit varieties by the American Pomological Society, one of the oldest horticultural societies in the world.

RELATED: You Can Grow It: Fruit Field Day in Parma showcases Idaho's fruit-growing industry

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