Sweet tarts: Haskap berry farmers hoping to cash in on Japanese demand

At first blush, the Yukon doesn’t seem like a great place to grow fruit. North of 60, the growing season is too short and the temperatures too cold to allow for the kind of harvests that come out of southern Ontario or the Okanagan Valley.

At first blush, the Yukon doesn’t seem like a great place to grow fruit. North of 60, the growing season is too short and the temperatures too cold to allow for the kind of harvests that come out of southern Ontario or the Okanagan Valley.

But there’s one crop that might do better here than just about anywhere else in Canada. At least, that’s what Kyle Marchuk and Shawn Newell are hoping.

Together, the pair aims to make Yukon Berry Farms the largest haskap berry farm in Canada, maybe even the largest in the world. And they plan to export their products overseas to Japan, where the berry is already popular.

“Every single Yukoner wouldn’t be able to eat as many haskaps as we’re going to have,” said Marchuk. “They’d go blue in the face.”

Yukon Berry Farms was launched in 2014. Currently, the farm consists of 40 acres and 40,000 plants, which Marchuk and Newell hope will produce at least 400,000 pounds of berries each season once they reach maturity in the next few years. They’re also looking to plant even more haskap, and Marchuk said a million pounds of berries in a year isn’t an unrealistic goal.

The farm is now issuing promissory notes to attract investors who want to help bring the haskap to market. The offer ends Sept. 30.

You could be forgiven for not knowing what a haskap berry is. It’s a fairly recent discovery in Canada, but some are convinced it could become our next superfood.

Haskap berries look like fat, stretched-out blueberries. Marchuk and Newell are growing varieties produced at the University of Saskatchewan that are crosses between haskap native to Siberia and Japan.

That mixture of traits is key to their success here in the Yukon. The Siberian berries, Newell explained, grow well in cold temperatures but have a bitter, sour flavour. The Japanese varieties are bigger and sweeter.

The hybrid combines the best of both berries. “It’s something that’s really cold hardy, but also tastes good,” Newell said. Marchuk describes the flavour as a cross between a blueberry and a raspberry, with the tartness of a black currant.

Unlike other fruit crops, haskap thrives in cold, northern temperatures and can tolerate frost. In contrast, Newell said, even the commercial blueberries grown in southern Canada won’t do well in the Yukon.

Haskap, conversely, doesn’t do well down south. “They need a dormant period where it’s going to be minus five, minus 10 or colder, the colder the better, for a few months,” Newell said. “So these plants, they can’t grow them down in Vancouver area or in the South — it’s too warm.”

Haskap has other good qualities, too. Currently, the plants have few pests or diseases in Canada, which makes it easier to grow them organically. Yukon Berry Farms doesn’t use any pesticides and the fertilizers are certified organic.

And haskap does have superfood potential. The berries are high in vitamin C, and they’re richer in antioxidants than many other berries, including blueberries.

“It’s such a perfect crop for the Yukon,” said Randy Lamb, acting agrologist with the Yukon government. “It’s very well-suited, and the plants do become very productive as well.”

The government’s agriculture branch has been researching haskap for several years, and has helped Marchuk and Newell get started.

But Yukon Berry Farms faces challenges, too. When Marchuk ordered his first 20,000 haskap plants in 2014, he received a shipment of tiny, six-inch-tall plants – much smaller than he expected. Those plants likely won’t be producing berries at full capacity until 2019. So for the time being, he and Newell are sinking a lot of their own money into this project.

And because they don’t own their own land, Marchuk explained, it’s hard to get the banks to invest. “The banks require security quite often,” he said. “They don’t use plants as security.”

That’s why he’s decided to issue promissory notes for at least $5,000 instead. He said he’s hoping for a total investment of about $150,000. Investors will receive a 10 per cent rate of interest compounded annually on the money they invest. The company can pay back the principal and interest at any time within the next seven years.

Marchuk said at least 10 people have signed up for promissory notes already.

“Most of the people that are approaching us say that they’re interested in investing in a local company, they’re interested in something that has to do with food or food security,” he said. “They like the fact that we’re certified organic.”

Yukon Berry Farms does plan to sell haskap locally – in fact, Yukon Brewing has already produced a haskap berry liqueur. But creating a Yukon-grown export is the ultimate goal.

To that end, Marchuk travelled to a food show in Japan earlier this year, with representatives from the Department of Economic Development. He was showcasing a haskap berry jam, and said the Japanese are very interested in buying haskap from Canada.

His eventual plan is to sell a value-added haskap product — possibly the jam, or maybe dried or frozen berries. He said he’s also had interest from North American companies, including Gerber and Astro.

Newell said he’d like to see more commercial-scale agriculture in the Yukon.

“I think we just rely too much on the South for food, and I’m sure other things can be grown here on a large scale,” he said.

Lamb said the Yukon is at a turning point when it comes to commercial agriculture. His department provides funding to farmers through the federal-territorial Growing Forward 2 program.

He said farmers here face a number of challenges, including availability and cost of land near Whitehorse, and access to water in dry areas. But haskap, he said, has real potential.

“We have a pristine product in a pristine part of the country.”

For more information visit www.yukonberry.com.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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