Welder, farmer, Nuffield Scholar, haskap champion… these are a few of Andrew Rosychuk’s titles.
The Edmonton native had dreams of farming but got a reality check while studying horticulture at Olds College and learning what it cost to start a farm.
“I quickly learned that you need money to make money,” he said.
So he signed up for night welding classes in order to get into the trades and start acquiring capital to get into farming.
In 2005, his aunt and uncle had some room on their land, where he planted several types of small fruit. That’s when he “fell in love” with haskaps, a northern berry native to Russia and Japan, with a tart taste somewhere between a blueberry and a raspberry.
Rosychuk planted 200 plants as a trial, experimented with them, and began selling the berries — dubbed a superfood because they are high in antioxidants — to a few restaurants and individual customers.
In 2013, he wrote up a business plan for a farm; bought land near Alcomdale (northwest of Morinville) the following year; and in 2015 began preparing the land for planting while working full time in the oilpatch.
“I was doing 20 days on, four days off for that year,” said Rosychuk. “Any time I had time off, I was on the farm. I put a cover crop down, so it was a mix of clovers and fescues and a few other cool things. I planted a shelterbelt. In 2016, I started going gangbusters.”
He ended up losing his job in the trades for a month during the Fort McMurray wildfires.
“I left my camp room for someone in town to stay in,” he said. “I took a month and pretty much planted my first 10,000 plants and went up to 25,000. Now every year, there’s more and more stuff.”
Along with tending his 27 acres of haskaps (which take a few years before producing their first harvest), Rosychuk investigated the marketing side of things. He started Haskap Alberta, which currently has 36 members across the province. The group’s main goal is to make sure would-be growers not only know the positives, but have also crunched the numbers and have a viable business plan for a berry that is little known and can’t compete with blueberries and raspberries on price.
Rosychuk is also one of the co-founders of North 49 Fruit Corporation, a group of haskap growers working together to grow the market for their fruit and processed products.
“We’re working on some cool stuff, we’ve hired a big marketing firm to help us with a product we can sell domestically to people,” he said. “We’re working together to stabilize a new industry. That’s the only way we’re going to do this. Otherwise it will be a race to the bottom because people will want to grow and harvest, and have no idea how to sell it and undercut everybody.”
Rosychuk has also been active with the Young Agrarians, a group of first-generation smaller-scale farmers.
“I just want to bring more focus back to the smaller farmer and people who want to get into farming. It can be done.”
Rosychuk was selected as a Nuffield Scholar for 2020, and was at a global gathering of scholars on an island near Brisbane, Australia when the pandemic was declared and attendees hastily returned to their home countries. Despite that, his Nuffield experience has been “phenomenal,” he said.
“The support network, the fraternity of Nuffield is incredible,” he said. “It’s an amazing program.”
His Nuffield project is looking at on-farm, medium-scale processing — a topic that directly relates to his operation.
“With haskaps, we grow in areas that don’t have food processing. Food processing in Alberta is pretty much ingredient based. There’s no co-packing.”
Haskaps have softer skin than blueberries, and need to be frozen as soon as they are picked.
“Even raspberries are more resilient than a haskap,” he said. “Each haskap grower has to have a freezing facility on site. That comes with the same regulations as the big dogs.”
That means following the same Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s rules on the freezing process.
“It’s a financial and mental undertaking,” said Rosychuk. “That’s the thing I’ve just been hitting myself on the head about. I’ve always done this stuff, but just getting it on paper is so complex.
“There is a reason why companies have full-time food safety people.”
Even though his Nuffield research has slowed and work in the trades has dried up as a result of COVID-19, Rosychuk has been busy, with both commercial harvesting, and his U-pick. The latter has been quite popular, as it’s an outing where it’s easy to social distance.
It’s also a way to introduce people to the fruit, which Rosychuk describes as one of the key challenges of his business.
“The more people I can talk to about haskaps, the more amazing they can realize they are, and the more customers we can have for the long term,” he said.