A berry good business opportunity

Money doesn't grow on trees, but if you know where to look it's growing all over the Yukon. The territory is rich in wild berries. In the Yukon it's more of a hobby, but in Scandinavia it's big business.

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but if you know where to look it’s growing all over the Yukon.

The territory is rich in wild berries.

In the Yukon it’s more of a hobby, but in Scandinavia it’s big business.

Thousands of Asian migrant workers flock to northern Europe every year during berry season.

It’s an industry that doesn’t exist in the Yukon, but it’s ripe for the picking, says Esa Ekdahl.

“All it would take is a young couple that were interested in doing it,” he said.

Twenty-five years ago Ekdahl and his wife, Zina, were that couple.

Originally from Finland, Ekdahl grew up picking berries.

When he moved to Canada in 1957, he only planned to stay for six months. But instead of moving back to northern Europe he came to northern Canada.

Settling in the Yukon in 1962, he worked in mining, forestry and construction.

It was while working on Dempster Highway construction crews that he first noticed the Yukon’s berry bounty.

Flying back from the work site, Ekdahl looked out the window and saw mountainsides covered with cloudberries.

“You could see them from the plane,” he said.

Not only are cloudberries extremely nutritious, they are also extremely expensive.

Although they grow all over Canada, cloudberries were and still are somewhat an obscure food in North America.

In Scandinavia, on the other hand, they’re wildly popular. They’re used in everything from jams to liquors.

Every year Norway alone imports hundreds of tonnes of cloudberries from neighbouring Finland.

Seeing how prolifically they grew in the Yukon got Ekdahl to thinking.

In 1987 he and his wife started a company called Northern Wild Berries.

Working out of their home, south of Whitehorse, they collected berries from hundreds of pickers.

“A housewife working for a few hours could make $100 a day,” he said.

The biggest problem they had was finding enough pickers to keep up with demand.

The market for the berries was great, he said.

Northern Wild Berries was shipping 25,000 kilograms of lingonberries – or what we call wild cranberries – and hundreds of kilograms of cloudberries all over the country. They even filled orders from places as far away as Florida.

Their success sparked the interest of the territorial government of the day.

With the government’s support, plans got underway to construct a berry processing plant on land where the Meadow Lakes Gold Course now sits.

But it wasn’t very long before it all hit the skids.

“We realized (we were) getting too big, too fast,” said Ekdahl. “We simply didn’t have enough berry pickers to keep an industry going.”

A few years later, the Ekdahls pulled the plug on their fledgling business.

“We didn’t risk anything so we didn’t lose anything,” he said.

Ekdahl still goes out to pick berries every year, but mostly for himself.

When he has an overabundance, he sometimes sells the surplus to the Alpine Bakery.

Twice a year, owner Suat Tuzlak puts out the call for wild berries.

“I just like Yukon berries so much,” he said.

The bakery pays cash for frozen or fresh wild berries, but Tuzlak prefers to trade

baked goods instead.

People from as far away as Old Crow bring in berries to trade for bread, he said.

Given that wild berries grow in such abundance in the Yukon, Tuzlak is a little surprised that no one else has tried to turn it into a business.

“There is a good market for wild berries,” he said.

While Tuzlak does source some of his berries from down south, he said he’d much rather get them all from the Yukon.

“Every time you buy something, you make a choice,” he said.

Not only does buying Yukon wild berries help support the local economy, it’s also a better option environmentally.

Wild berries don’t need chemical fertilizers or pesticides to grow and they don’t lead to the degradation of water and wetlands, said Tuzlak.

While there is local and international demand for the Yukon’s berries, turning that into a business still has a lot of challenges to overcome.

In Europe the industry faces a labour shortage, which is why it imports workers from the other side of the world.

While a dearth of labour was one of the problems Ekdahl faced in the ‘80s, it wasn’t the only one.

In the Yukon, the berries don’t always grow in the most convenient places, he said. Many of the best spots are in remote locations.

“The trick is getting them out,” said Ekdahl. “It can be very expensive.”

And that’s a problem that’s gotten worse over the years.

The good cloudberry patches are moving further and further north, said Ekdahl.

“Now with global warming you have to go all the way to Eagle Plains,” he said.

While he still thinks that the Yukon’s wild berries could be turned into a viable business, he’s doesn’t think it’s likely that anyone will take the challenge on.

“I don’t even see people picking berries anymore,” he said. “People are used to just going to the store.”

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com