POINTE LEBEL, Que. — When Donald Berube told the agronomist that he intended to start a commercial berry operation on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, he was advised to consider another type of enterprise for northeastern Quebec.
After years of operating a nearby peat harvesting operation, he knew that his farm in Zone 3 could produce berries because of the moderating influence of nearby rivers and the wind shadow provided by the surrounding black spruce forest.
He, his wife, Francoise, and his brother, Laurent, took a leap of faith and today their U-pick strawberries and raspberries are thriving. They are also becoming one of the largest haskap producers in Quebec.
“There is no manual available for growing haskap in isolated northern environments,” said Berube, whose comments were translated from French.
“It is a continuous learning experience.”
The family gained information by attending conferences with experts like University of Saskatchewan plant scientist Bob Bors.
They also formed an association of haskap producers in Quebec, which meets regularly to exchange information on growing and marketing.
“We have also learned a lot by watching the blueberry producers both here and in the Lac St. Jean area. One of the most important lessons is the danger of over-supplied markets for fresh berries.
“If we want to be successful, we will have to develop further processed haskap products while at the same time managing the production challenges,” said Berube.
They are already having success on the processing front, with haskaps used regionally in the commercial production of jams and jellies.
Local microbrewer Microbrasserie St. Pancrace has produced and bottled a batch of haskap beer that quickly sold out this summer and is planning for a larger run next year.
The Berubes’ six varieties of haskaps, or camerises as they are called in Quebec, are direct descendants of the first varieties developed at the university by Bors.
Bors developed these berries by crossing a Japanese variant with a hardier Russian variety to develop bushes that can survive temperatures of -47 C.
Currently there are approximately 25 acres of haskap under production at the Berube farm, with the family preparing to harvest a field of buckwheat that will switch over to haskap by spring.
Berube will plant about 1,000 plants per acre, with the bushes expected to reach up to two metres in height and produce up to four kilograms of berries per plant at maturity.
Francoise is confident they can deal with the challenges of farming in the north, citing the moose, deer, geese and bears that have all developed a fondness for haskap.
“Often when we come to the field in the morning, we will find piles of bear poop all over the fields. Some piles will be red if they have been feeding on the strawberries, blue if they have been into the haskaps. They really like our haskaps … but we’ll manage,” she said.