Manitoba family swaps grains for haskap berries after worst harvest in 50 years

A Manitoba farming family has swapped traditional prairie cereal grains for a cereal topping that’s gaining popularity in Canada.

Trena and Wayne Zacharias are now the proud owners of a 20-acre haskap berry orchard just north of Winnipeg.

Trena told CTV News the decision to switch happened in 2019 they had the worst harvest in half a century.

“We kind of decided at that point that grain farming was not going to be in our future,” she said.

In September 2020, the couple got a license to grow 20,000 haskap shrubs. The Zacharias’ said they picked the haskap berry for its health benefits and the plant’s hardiness.

“They’re one of the highest in antioxidants. They have, I think, quadruple the antioxidants of even a blueberry,” said Trena.

WHAT IS HASKAP?

According to the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Sciences Department, haskap is a new crop for North America. It can also go by blue honeysuckle or honey berry, it tastes like a blueberry mixed with a raspberry, and it’s one of the first berries to ripen each year in mid-June.

The plant also seems to be made for life on the Prairies.

Justin Schaffer, the head technician for the U of S Fruit Program, told CTV News they have been crossing the Canadian variety, which grows in and around swamps but isn’t worth harvesting, with the Japanese and Russian varieties to make what he calls ‘wonderful and exciting fruit.’

“Haskap are crazy cold hardy, hardy minus 50 no problem,” he said. “We got a lot of our material from the Siberia research station which is actually colder than here.”

Schaffer said the berries are gaining popularity, but aren’t common yet. He hopes that in the future, big growers take on haskap because it is machine-harvestable.

NO BERRY IS BAD: REGISTERED DIETICIAN

Registered dietician Kerri Cuthbert said she has heard of haskap, but has never tried one. In Manitoba, haskap is not easily found in grocery stores.

Cuthbert said from what she has seen, haskap berries are a lot higher in antioxidants than comparable berries (blueberries, raspberries) and also have more vitamin C than oranges.

“They just seem like a really well-rounded high nutrition berries, like a lot of other fruit,” said Cuthbert who is the clinical lead for nutrition and a registered dietician at Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg.

She said the deep purple colour of the fruit is a sign a fruit is high in antioxidants.

Cuthbert said the new Canada Food Guide’s advice is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and haskap would fit into that.

HASKAP GROWING TAKES TIME, LABOUR

A few years into growing their haskap orchard, the Zacharias’ haven’t yielded enough berries to sell to paying customers.

They said last season’s drought conditions forced the plants into dormancy.

“Last year, with the raging drought that was taking place, we had to water these plants all day, every day,” said Trena.

She said switching from grain farming to organic berry production has proven to be laborious, and finding people to work the field has been hard.

“There is no similarities really,” said Wayne, who added grain farming is three to four months from seeding to harvest, while berries are a much longer commitment.

Next year will mark the third season for Haskap Prairie Orchard, which the Zacharias’ say is when they can start reaping what they have sowed.

“According to the growth they’ve had this summer, we’re expecting a nice crop, lots of berries.”

The plan is to open the orchard as a haskap u-pick in June 2023.  

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