Processing, marketing, supply challenge sea buckthorn growth

Sea buckthorn has been touted as a promising fruit for orchard owners for more than a decade, but the industry remains a work in progress on the Prairies.

Processing raw products and finding markets and a consistent supply of berries have impeded progress, but growers and experts in the field still see room for the brightly coloured berry alongside more traditional fruits.

In the mid-1990s, word spread about the fruit’s potential: the plant was well-suited to growth on the Prairies and the shrub’s nutritious and vitamin-rich fruit has uses in food, cosmetic and nutraceutical products, with markets in China, Russia and Europe.

Even today, an endorsement from TV’s Dr. Oz has kept the plant in the public’s mind.

The size of market demand, however, is difficult to pinpoint. A 2000 market analysis conducted for the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Shelterbelt Centre was unable to put a number to it and concluded, “The development of the sea buckthorn in the prairie provinces is approaching a critical point.

“At present there is only one potential investor for the construction of a sea buckthorn processing plant in the prairies,” said the report. “Should, for whatever reason, this plant not be constructed and operated, the producers who have invested in the establishment of sea buckthorn orchards and shelterbelts will essentially have no market for their sea buckthorn fruit.”

About 550 acres of sea buckthorn were planted in Saskatchewan and Manitoba at the time. A Saskatchewan processing plant didn’t materialize. There were production problems, as well.

“We had originally thought that maybe people would harvest from their shelterbelts, but we soon found that really wasn’t practical,” said Bill Schroeder, a research adviser at Agriculture Canada’s Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, Sask., who has bred sea buckthorn varieties for orchard production.

“I think that for the amount of fruit that we feel would need to be provided by growers and the cost of collection and the variability we see in shelterbelts as far as productivity, it just didn’t make economic sense.”

On the dioecious sea buckthorn plant, only female shrubs produce fruit. With inconsistent male-female ratios in shelterbelts, consistent production was problematic, an issue compounded by a difficult and laborious harvest.

It’s a situation familiar to grower Betty Forbes, owner of Northern Vigor Berries. Her family planted a 13-acre orchard outside of Kamsack, Sask., in 1998. By 2006, she had to stop her father from plowing everything up.

“I said ‘no, we need to do something about this, because the value is too great …’” said Forbes.

Her business grows its own sea buckthorn and sells berries and products — including gelato, fruit leather and even a tea from the leaves of male plants — at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

She’s also taken up marketing — something other growers might be hesitant to do, she said — harvesting the berries for other growers and acting as a broker for those who ship to her, while taking orders from buyers in Quebec and the United States.

“We wouldn’t be able to supply huge markets without the help of other growers,” she said, noting orders can be for as much as 10,000 kilograms at a time.

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