Black currants in Saskatchewan?

A new Saskatchewan fruit grower wants to give consumers a taste of England.

Peter Rhodes, from the farming district of Lincolnshire in eastern England, runs a U-pick operation in a market garden area near Saskatoon.

He has planted an acre of black currants that produced about four tons of fruit last year, more than he could sell.

“Locals don’t seem to know what they are,” he said during a Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association tour of his farm June 21.

Rhodes, who offers fresh, frozen and U-pick, also has 10 acres of raspberries and new plantings of white grapes and blackberries.

At 75, he has a long history in small business. He quit school at 14 and later created an electrical company that today is operated by a son-in-law. His two adult daughters live in England.

He lives on his 80 acre farm with his partner, Lisa Kalesnikoff, a Saskatoon school teacher, and their four-year-old daughter and also maintains a riverside home in Saskatoon.

A handyman and jack of all trades, Rhodes has done most of the work himself refurbishing the farm home, planting and outfitting the new orchard with drip irrigation and acquiring specialized equipment.

He kept sheep as a hobby in England but the fruit business is new territory for the entrepreneur.

“The raspberries and black currants know more about me than I know about them,” Rhodes said.

Marketing is the biggest hurdle, as it is for most Saskatchewan fruit growers.

His added challenge is persuading people to visit the farm, taste the berries and then pick them for $10 per four litre pail so that he doesn’t have to pay someone else to do it.

Rhodes sells fruit to city restaurants and will soon launch a website. Signs are posted at picking time to draw people off the highway.

Native varieties of black currants are well known to First Nations and Europeans, he said. Their popularity peaked in England after their cultivation was encouraged during the Second World War when fruit was scarce.

Rich in minerals and vitamins, black currants can be eaten fresh or frozen or processed into jams, drinks, teas and toppings.

Rhodes chose a winter hardy, thorned Polish variety, which offers good disease resistance and is suitable for mechanical harvesting.

Wildlife is another challenge, particularly gophers that make holes where pickers walk. He tried poisons and traps but has settled on a litter of cats to control the pests.

Association president Mel Annand said growers such as Rhodes are on the cutting edge, trying new varieties and discovering what can be grown in Saskatchewan.

Annand, who runs Sweet Apple Farms in Melfort, Sask., and will try growing currants this year, said there are tremendous opportunities to grow fruit on the Prairies.

“Saskatoon will be looking for more local products,” he said.

Saskatoons and strawberries remain the province’s biggest fruit crops. Sour cherries and haskap are expanding rapidly.

Alberta has also ventured into black currants, with about 400 acres grown commercially near Edmonton, said retired Saskatchewan fruit specialist Clarence Peters.

His advice for starting currants includes choosing a location that does not trap frost and selecting varieties that flower later. He said the plants need to start hardening off by mid-August.

“They don’t like to go into the fall wet,” he said.

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