On the Farm A drought-tolerant variety developed at the University of Saskatchewan makes this unique orchard work
SHACKLETON, Sask. — Producers in southwestern Saskatchewan have a reputation for producing a variety of high quality agricultural products such as beef, lentils and durum wheat.
Cam McLeod is one of those growers. But the crop he grows is not what many people might expect.
McLeod’s orchard at Shackelton, Sask., about 70 kilometres northwest of Swift Current, has been producing drought-tolerant cherries since the early 2000s.
The orchard, also known as the Santa Fe Food Company, consists of 6,000 cherry trees and can produce roughly 40,000 pounds of fruit each year.
It’s not the easiest way to make a living, McLeod acknowledges. But it can be done.
“It’s a great life,” he says.
“It’s a lot of work but I enjoy it and I have a great staff that helps out during the busy season….”
McLeod grew up on a mixed farm near Cabri, Sask., a few kilometres down the road from Shackleton.
When he left the family farm in the mid-1980s, he spent several years in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, one of the country’s most productive fruit-growing regions.
Eventually, he made his way back to Saskatchewan and decided to put his recently acquired experience as an orchardist to work.
He bought 44 acres of land in Shackleton and later added another 17 acres near Cabri.
He tried a few different cherry cultivars, but eventually settled on a variety called Carmine Jewel, a prairie variety developed by fruit breeder Bob Bors at the University of Saskatchewan.
McLeod’s first Carmine Jewel trees went into the ground in 2000 and by 2007, he had 6,000 trees between the two locations.
The Carmine Jewel cherry is small by B.C. standards.
On a good year, the cherries are nickel-sized and suitable for pitting.
On a drier year, the cherries are smaller, about the size of a dime. Smaller cherries are cold pressed for their dark, healthy juice, one of four processed products that McLeod’s company sells.
Pitted cherries are also sold to the Cypress Hills Winery in southern Saskatchewan and to Pearson’s Berry farm at Bowden, Alta.
In early July, the sugar content of McLeod’s cherries is typically in the five to six percent range.
A couple weeks later, when the harvest season begins, the sugar content is around 11 percent.
“By the time I’m done harvesting, they can be as high as 18 percent, which is about the same as a B.C. Bing cherry,” McLeod says.
But the cherries’ acidity gives them a distinctive tart flavour.
“They’re an amazing little bush for this area.”
McLeod acknowledges that growing cherries in southern Saskatchewan is an unusual way to make a living.
“I’m sure some people think I’m crazy,” he says.
But the lifestyle is enjoyable and McLeod is proud of the fact that he hasn’t had to work for an off-farm paycheque since 2011.
Harvest normally begins in late July.
McLeod uses a mechanical harvester with plastic fingers to remove the fruit.
On a good day, he and a helper will harvest 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of fresh fruit before 9 a.m.
The cherries are cleaned, sorted and frozen for processing at a later date.
Santa Fe’s four signature products include a bottled sour cherry juice, Rib N Wing sauce, Chertney (cherry chutney) and Chelish (cherry relish).
The products were developed using old-family recipes that also contain rhurbarb and goose berries.
“I just added cherries until they were the first ingredient,” McLeod says.
“Cherries have to be the first ingredient on the label.”
Pollination has improved significantly with the help of leafcutter bees acquired from Backyard Pollinators at Imperial, Sask.
The bees ensure more even pollination throughout the orchard, McLeod says.
For more information on Santa Fe’s products, visit santafefoodcompany.ca.