Peace-area grain grower diversifies into a unique crop

try fruit Kreg and Leanne Alde will soon be the province’s largest haskap growers, but they predict others will follow in their footsteps

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Last year’s closing of Cargill’s Albright facility west of Grande Prairie prompted grain farmer Kreg Alde to try something completely different — fruit production.

The elevator closing was not a popular move with area farmers, who will see their transportation costs double as they ship to the next closest site, the Viterra facility in Sexsmith.

The Cargill closure was a wake-up call, says Alde, who grows mostly wheat, barley and canola on about 2,500 acres with his wife Leanne and in partnership with his father Wayne.

“I always like to balance risk and with the Cargill shutdown it got a little scary,” says Alde. “As soon as I have to rely on other people, I get uneasy.”

Alde, who is also co-owner of an oilfield environmental company, said he has long wanted to move away from a “one-window” farm operation. He previously tried hemp but encountered production and marketing issues.

But he has higher hopes for haskap, a so-called “superfruit” with extreme cold hardiness. Derived from an edible honeysuckle from Siberia and resembling an oval blueberry, the haskap is tart, sweet and high in antioxidants.

It is also extremely hardy, fast growing and high yielding, say its advocates. Seedlings will produce fruit within three years, reaching maximum maturity at 10 years. The fact it can withstand winter temperatures of -47 C and its fruit ready to harvest by late June piqued Alde’s interest.

Fruit in six years

Five commercial cultivars have been developed by the University of Saskatchewan, the only source of certified seedlings in Canada. They grow from four to six feet high, and yield 2.2 pounds of berries per plant in their third year and as much as 8.8 pounds by year six.

The Aldes bought 7,000 seedlings this spring and will plant another 7,000 next year on about 40 acres taken out of regular crop rotation — making their farm the largest haskap operation in the province. They’ve installed a drip irrigation system at a cost of approximately $25,000 and are hoping to eventually harvest about 80,000 pounds of fruit annually. Plans for a cottage winery and offering juice, fresh and frozen haskap berry products for sale are in the works.

Alde says more haskap growers will be needed to meet the demand as the market develops. One of the advantages of haskap production for small farmers, he notes, is the required infrastructure compared to conventional farming.

“A new combine can cost $400,000,” he says. “A berry harvester costs about $100,000. A used one is $30,000.”

And, says Leanne, there are other advantages.

“Even though we’ve been a farm family for years, I’m not comfortable operating today’s huge farm machinery.”

The idea that they’ll be able to scale down harvesting equipment in both cost and size is very appealing, she says.

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