Look out blueberries and saskatoons – there’s a new berry in town. Marvin and Judy Hrudey, who own Emjay’s berry farm, are growing haskap berries, which originated in Siberia and Japan.
The Hrudeys have always grown a variety of berries in their orchard near Andrew. Marvin was a grain farmer who decided to turn his full-time attention to his orchard berries about three years ago. The Hrudeys currently grow a number of cultivars, including buffalo berries, sea buckthorn berries, chokecherries, Saskatchewan sour cherries, Evans cherries, strawberries, cranberries and raspberries. “We’re constantly doing something different here,” says Marvin.
Haskaps are currently the Hrudeys’ biggest project. Marvin first learned about them on the Internet. He was eventually referred to Dr. Bob Bors in the horticulture department at the University of Saskatchewan. Bors and his colleague Rick Sawatzky are running one of the only fruit programs in Western Canada.
Bors has brought several haskap cuttings from Siberia and Japan to the University of Saskatchewan. The Siberian varieties are bitter and smaller, while the Japanese varieties are larger and sweeter. Bors has also travelled around Canada acquiring cuttings of blue honeysuckle, which are in the same family as the haskaps. He is currently working to cross and develop new varieties. Canadian haskap varieties are hardy, but tend to produce a more tart-tasting berry.
Hardy, but hard to harvest
The Hrudeys acquired some of their plants at a field day at the University of Saskatchewan and later purchased some from a private grower. Haskaps are globe-shaped purple berries that usually ripen in mid-June and have a three-week harvest season. The berries are full of antioxidants and vitamin C.
Plants can grow to about 1.5 metres. It takes about three years of growth before the plants produce five to 10 kilograms of berries each season. Haskaps would be a good choice for organic growers as the plants don’t need to be sprayed for disease or pests. Marvin uses plastic mulch around the plants to control weeds. The plants start blooming about three weeks after the snow melts.
Picking is labour intensive and needs to be done by hand, although testing of a Polish harvester will begin next year at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The plants grow in segments and if you’re not careful when you’re handling them, you’ll break a segment. If you break the segment, that segment dies off, and there’s no production on it,” says Marvin.
Two years ago, the Hrudeys began selling haskap berries at farmers’ markets around northeastern Alberta. This year, they travelled to 12 markets, including Bonnyville, Fort Saskatchewan and Camrose. Since many people have never heard of the berries, the Hrudeys rely heavily on samples.
Judy said many people are attracted to the berry because it’s the closest thing to a commercial blueberry that can be grown in the Prairie provinces. She says people who know the health benefits of purple berries are also interested in the haskaps. Some say that the berry tastes like a combination of blueberries and raspberries, but Marvin thinks the berry has its own distinct taste. Haskap berries can be used in almost any baking or recipe that calls for fruit. The Hrudeys also make sugar-free haskap jam, haskap juice and haskap wine.