Orchard owners experiment with new fruit crop

Haskap in Saskatchewan | Early adopters 
test new haskap varieties and recipes

BIRCH HILLS, Sask. — Building a new fruit enterprise takes time, perseverance, money, patience and careful consideration of the big picture, say two haskap growers.

Carl and Sandra Barber are on the ground floor of a project that may not bear fruit in their lifetime, but both are eager for the chance to create a new niche market crop for Saskatchewan.

“So far we think our haskap adventures are developing successfully,” Carl said. “In a couple years, we should know for sure.”

Their benchmark is blueberries, but Carl said haskap packs a greater nutritional punch, is well suited to the harsh prairie climate and could eclipse blueberry’s success one day. Canada is the world’s second-largest producer and exporter of blueberries.

“It took years for blueberries to get there,” said Carl. “Haskap will get there, just like canola.”

Sandra said processed haskap holds the most promise because the window for servicing fresh markets is scarcely three weeks.

The Barbers grow haskap at their 21 acre Northern Light Orchards near Hagen, Sask., with 10 other owners. Carl is president and manager and employs a part-time worker in addition to berry pickers at harvest. Partners provide labour and equipment as needed.

Haskap and hybrid poplar trees are grown on 17 of the acres, with the remaining land in native trees and shrubs. The Barbers are also co-owners of Haskap Central Sales near Henribourg, Sask., which propagates haskap for other growers.

The hardy bushes yield purple oblong-shaped fruit in June and are grown without irrigation and chemicals.

The challenge for plant breeders is to create varieties suited for mechanical harvesting, while for growers it is finding suitable harvesters. Northern Light fruit is currently hand picked.

The orchard grows Borealis, Tundra and Indigo Gem, some of the first commercially released varieties from the plant breeding program led by researcher Bob Bors at the University of Saskatchewan.

The Barbers worked extensively with Bors, learning the ropes and helping maintain the plants at the Saskatoon campus.

The fledgling haskap sector has only 300 commercial acres in North America, and Carl said there is little support and resources for growers.

The Barbers have found it beneficial to attend horticultural shows in British Columbia and talk to blueberry growers.

“We’re trying to do something with haskap that’s never been done before,” said Carl.

“No one really knows what a Tundra plant will look like when it’s mature.”

Added Sandra: “It’s a leap of faith.”

The orchard was planted in 2008 and is expected to be in full production within two years. Limited harvesting in 2011 netted 1,000 kilograms and more was harvested in 2012.

Plants flowered early in cool temperatures last year when the bees were not yet flying, which affected cross-pollination and yield.

The Barbers also sell 5,000 to 10,000 poplar trees a year and operate Tiger Hills Outfitting.

In addition, Sandra served as administrator for the Rural Municipality of Birch Hills and Carl worked as a building contractor.

Carl also oversees the family’s four-quarter farm at Storthoaks, managing forage, pasture and annual crops.

The orchard builds on the Barbers’ love of the outdoors, interest in maintaining biodiversity, conservation and agroforestry and passion for growing what they eat.

“That got us going on this track,” said Carl. “I always thought there should be more in agriculture than extensive monoculture.”

Sandra said the fruit’s high anti-oxidant content is a selling point.

“I believe in eating healthy and haskap is one of those foods that are not only good for you but tastes great as well.”

Sandra uses trial and error to develop recipes for wine, juice and preserves, experimenting with different sugars and thickeners.

“There is so much juice it bleeds into your baking,” she said.

The orchard markets its fruit through a website and also offers a U-pick operation.

“We have no problem selling whatever we produce,” said Sandra. “People are interested. It’s a novelty.”

Carl is careful to curb his enthusiasm.

“A lot of ag diversity ventures, people get unrealistically optimistic.… We know how much time and capital was required to be successful,” he said, citing the $250,000 invested by Northern Light partners over a five-year period.

The Barbers say the next step is to fine tune their products in preparation for the Food Industry Development Centre in Saskatoon.

“We’re not sure how far we’ll go with the processing end,” Sandra said.

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