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Discovering haskap

Is this the next superfood that will spawn a generation of new farm enterprises across the country?

At age 47, Don Northcott was casting about for new business opportunities. Some 20 years earlier, the Prince Edward Island native with a BSc in taxonomy had founded Phytocultures, a company specializing in plant tissue-culture technology for seed-potato production. His cutting-edge work earned him a worldwide reputation as a respected leader in potato-plant propagation.

After building a successful business from scratch, and pondering the next 20 or 30 years, he says he was “itching for a new challenge.” That’s when he heard about haskap — a super health-boosting, antioxidant-rich berry that is also cold-climate friendly.

It was a light-bulb moment. “Based on my experience with potatoes,” Northcott says, “this looked like an opportunity to turn a garden curiosity into an industry. It was not an opportunity to overlook.”

Now, 11 years on, haskap is emerging as a serious contender in the berry world.

Haskap is an ancient name that Japan’s Ainu people gave to Lonicera caerulea, meaning “berry of long life and good vision.” It is a member of the honeysuckle family with remarkable, oblong blue berries, each about one centimetre in diameter. Found in the wild in every Canadian province except British Columbia, the first cultivated version was introduced at Beaver Lodge, Alta., in the 1950s. There was a problem, though. The berries of both wild and early cultivated versions were bitter and unpalatable, and they never caught on.

Today’s berries have a variety of flavour profiles. One clone tastes like cotton candy and another has such a strong strawberry flavour that, if you sampled it in the dark, you would think that’s what it was. However, the most common description is raspberry meets blueberry meets blackberry, with its own unique zing.

The berry caught the imagination of the entrepreneurial Northcott for several reasons. “It’s always fun to be on the front end of something as exciting as this,” he says. “Whereas potatoes have been around for a couple of hundred years, this was a brand new crop. Making gains in the potato industry today is hard. It’s a big, crowded pool that requires the best technical people, and you need to be well financed.”

With haskaps, on the other hand, there was little competition, a desperate need for technical information, and a big opportunity for crop improvement. At the time, few people knew anything about them.

In the early years, curious growers called Northcott for five or 10 plants. Now, with solid production practices, it’s 5,000. photo: Supplied

Professor Bob Bors, a plant scientist at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), was one of them. In the 1990s, Bors was looking to build his career and his research reputation — something with greater potential than the strawberries and raspberries he had been studying. “One day,” he says, “there it was right before me in the university’s nursery, looking like an elongated, misshapen blueberry.” Like Northcott, he felt a rush of excitement.

His haskap research began by travelling across Canada, selecting plants from each province and then visiting Russia and Japan, bringing back varietals for his plant bank. Bors planted four varieties in 1997. By combining the best traits from these plants, his breeding program developed varietals better suited to commercial agriculture and mechanical harvesting and with bigger, more flavourful fruit. Now assistant professor and head of the university’s fruit program, Bors is credited with “taking haskap out of the wild and into the farm.”

The 50-acre plot on the campus of U of S where Bors grows new varietals is one of the coldest locations in the world where fruit is being bred. Unlike other fruit crops, frost-tolerant haskap thrives in cold, northern temperatures. Among its other appealing qualities, haskap is the first crop to ripen each season (earlier than strawberries by a few weeks), the plants have few pests or diseases and the berries have superfood potential. High in vitamin C, they are also rich in antioxidants — even richer than blueberries.

Under Bors’s guidance, the U of S is credited with having the world’s best haskap-breeding program and giving birth to a whole new industry. The varieties developed by the program are sold to licenced nurseries and companies such as Phytocultures, with royalties plowed back into the fruit-breeding program.

Northcott works exclusively with the U of S program, under license to propagate and sell their varieties. “I prefer to work with only one source,” he says, “because I know the breeder, I know the background and I am a brand believer.”

Under this license, the evolving research and procedures at Phytocultures have developed and expanded new haskap varieties, refined production and improved harvest technology. Each year, Phytocultures now produces thousands of plants from select varieties to accommodate emerging commercial markets,

According to Northcott, haskaps do not make for easy picking. While not a problem for home gardeners who pick by hand, they present a challenge for mechanical harvesters because the fruit is deep in the bush. Soft when ripe, the berries lack the strength to withstand conventional mechanical harvesting. As a result, they aren’t as adapted to the fresh market as highbush blueberries.

As with any new product, there was a lot of initial hype and excitement. Early releases by U of S introduced the berry to potential producers and gardeners in general, with some enthusiasts attempting to commercialize the crop before production techniques had been well profiled.

If you are going to start corn farming, there are people who can tell you what, where and when to do it. “With haskap, we arrived on the shore and we had to chop our own path through the woods and figure it out. Given a steep learning curve, today’s producers have been educated in the school of hard knocks,” Northcott says, modestly adding, “At Phytocultures, we still haven’t graduated.”

However, as production methods have been refined and new varieties enter commercial arenas, he sees large-scale haskap production becoming a commercial reality.

Northcott saw his challenge as one of developing production and management techniques that would lend themselves to mechanical harvesting. If met, this would transform a garden curiosity to a new berry industry.

Bob Bors’s varieties had been selected under a dry, continental climate, one that is considerably different from the Maritime climate of higher humidity, later spring and fall seasons, and a wide range of winter conditions. Phytocultures has been able to adapt U of S varieties to this new environment and, at the same time, produce tasty fruit.

Northcott drew on his experience with potatoes and borrowed technical information from the highbush blueberry industry. He developed methods of planting and pruning to improve berry quality, fruit size and sugar content. He went to Holland to purchase, import and distribute small, easy, mechanical harvesters as the “two-to five-acre solution” between home garden and commercial crops.

Now 11 years into the haskap project, Phytocultures has antioxidant profiles (that include levels of flavinoids and polyphenols) for 70 of its advanced lines. Northcott and his team have also developed a production and management manual that they provide free to anyone interested. It outlines the experience of Phytocultures, including Northcott’s recommendations for would-be growers.

Northcott’s steep learning curve has taken place on his farm and research facility located in the bucolic countryside of Clyde River, 14 kilometres from downtown Charlottetown. “I can now bring people to my farm,” he says, “walk them through the plots and say this is what we have learned.”

“We are now moving in the direction of an industry,” Northcott says. “Similar to highbush blueberries, haskap plants have active growth for 20 to 30 years, and they improve with age. With serious agricultural people looking at the crop, the sector has gone beyond the early rush to be first.” While in the early years, Phytocultures would get orders for four or five plants; individual growers are now ordering up to 5,000.

On a recent trip, I toured the largest haskap farm on Prince Edward Island, where Ming-I Wang, a petit 32-year-old woman from Taiwan tends 10,000 plants. Ming-I visited Canada several years ago, fell in love with the island and jumped at the opportunity to return to work for a Chinese company that has plans to grow the berries to produce antioxidant powder, which is a big seller in Asia.

She had a personal reason for wanting the job — her father was recovering from cancer surgery and was interested in foods high in antioxidants. She planted one field in 2018 and a second last year. It takes five years for the plant to fully mature. The day we visited, she was mulching the rows as an organic means of controlling pests. Now she wants to become a Canadian citizen. “I have been working on this for two years,” she says. “I feel like a mother watching her babies grow and I don’t want to give it up. Prince Edward Island is known for lobster and potatoes. Someday I hope it will be famous for lobster, potatoes and a really healthy fruit, haskap.”

The super fruit is showing huge market potential in products such as jams, jellies, chutneys, juices, dried fruit, ice cream, and wines and spirits, with greater demand than available berries. And this doesn’t include the fresh market. Given consumer interest in antioxidants, the demand is expected to increase.

Recently 28 growers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island formed a co-operative, Hazzberry Farms, to promote the preserves and sauces they are producing from their berries. Haskaps were front and centre on June 13 in Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay, when the group launched their first three products at a local store and restauranteurs added the berry to their menus. Starting small while thinking big, and with more products to come, the group has its sights set on supermarkets throughout the Maritimes and beyond.

At the other end of the country, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery in Vernon, B.C., has been producing a haskap liqueur for the past four years. In 2015, their Haskap Liqueur won a Double-Gold at the liqueur’s first-ever appearance at the World Spirits Awards. It won another gold medal in 2017.

About three years ago, Jurg Stutz, winemaker at Nova Scotia’s Grand Pre Winery, was given some berries. “At first we didn’t know what to do with them,” he says, “so we tried different things, eventually deciding on a sparkling rosé.” A blend of L’Acadie Blanc, Seyval Blanc and haskap juice, the wine has been a popular addition to their product line. “People like it because of the flavour and the fact it is not overly sweet.”

Wanting a different way of life for his family, Joe Piotti traded a career in the U.S. financial sector for that of a Nova Scotia farmer. In 2013, he was looking for a crop to utilize part of his pasture when he stumbled upon haskap. It was the fruit’s high nutritional content that caught his attention and the next year, he bought 1,000 plants. Currently he has 10 acres and 10,000 plants which, he says is, “just big enough for me.”

Having brought his business acumen to the project, Piotti was instrumental in the establishment of Haskap Canada, now a 190-member growers’ association. Each province that has a growers’ association recognized by its provincial department of agriculture has a seat on the Haskap Canada board.

Piotti sees a robust future for the industry. “I see it happening on a regional basis through collaborative means, by the growers and the producers of quality products,” he says. Currently there are logistical problems. It makes no sense to ship berries from Western Canada to Nova Scotia, for example, where, thanks to an established blueberry and cranberry industry, there are processing facilities. “We need to develop a regional infrastructure,” he adds.

“I am encouraged,” Piotti says, “because of all the young people across the country who are interested and who look at life and business in a non-traditional way, working, not competitively, but collaboratively to make a difference.”

For the little misshapen berry that not so long ago was an unknown, the future looks bright.

Today Bob Bors’s number-one goal is to develop varietals that ripen at different times — early, mid- and late season — making it a more viable proposition for farmers.

Don Northcott adds that, because of the plant’s ability to withstand cold temperatures, haskap has the potential to move agriculture several hundred miles north of its current limit. “And that,” he says, “is very exciting.”

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