Haskap berry new crop opportunity for northern farmers, communities

Haskap - U Saskatchewan

Haskap berries – photo source: University of Saskatchewan

A new cool climate berry crop could present southern market opportunities for northern farmers, as well as be a local food source for communities in the north.

The results from a two year project by the North Eastern Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (NEOSCIA) on how to best grow Haskap in northern Ontario are very promising.

“We’ve always had wild blueberries in the north, but it would be really nice to have a plant that would be more viable to grow as a major agricultural product on the typical farm soil of the region,” says NEOSICA’s Graham Gambles. “We need something different from what other people have – a unique product that has a high market value and little market competition.”

The solution could lie with Haskap, a longish, finger-shaped berry that tastes similar to wild blueberries, grows better in cool northern climates than it does in southern regions, and contains considerably more antioxidants than wild blueberries.

Over the last two years, 16 farmers across north-eastern Ontario each planted 100 “companion” plants (25 of each of four Haskap varieties developed by University of Saskatchewan) and a dozen “pollinator” plants of a European variety.

“Haskap is ideally suited to production in the region, from Muskoka to Moose Factory, and from the Quebec border to Wawa. We’ve found it to be winter hardy in “plant hardiness” zones one through four, even in the winter of 2013-14, which was the most severe winter in decades in this area,” says Gambles. “In northern Ontario, with the exception of wetlands, there are no climate or soil limits that we could see for Haskap.”

The plants start producing significant fruit by their third year, and should be at full production after year five with a life expectancy of 30 years. They are ripe about the same time as wild strawberries – a full month ahead of wild blueberries – and production is expected to range from seven to 10 pounds per plant.

Gambles suggests prices for Haskap berries could meet or exceed those of wild local blueberries in the north, which is currently about $8 per pound most years.

Initial opportunities would be fresh market sales through farmers’ markets and pick your own businesses.

Haskap can be used in any recipe that calls for blueberries, and value-added opportunities for jams, baked goods, or even fruit wine will develop as more berries come into production, he adds.

There is also opportunity for isolated communities in the “far north” to grow Haskap berries locally.

The NEOSCIA pilot project intentionally included a location at Moose Factory, a community just south of James Bay, and most plants there survived last winter’s cold temperatures.

“Moose Factory is a “plant hardiness” zone one location and if they can survive there, they may be able to survive further north as well – maybe even in Attawapiskat” says Gambles. “They can grow in protected areas around buildings, and the blooms will withstand -6C to -8C in the spring, so you can expect to get a crop off these plants most everywhere in northern Ontario.”

The project was funded through an Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association regional partner grant, with additional support from Phytocultures Ltd. of P.E.I., SGS Agrifood Laboratories, and South Temiskaming Community Futures Development Corporation.