A new and little-known berry is gaining recognition for its health value as production grows in northwestern New Brunswick.
The haskap berry — which looks like a long blueberry — is packed with antioxidants and grows on more than 50 acres (about 20 hectares) of fields in the Haut-Madawaska region. It was first planted in the area five years ago by the Coopérative forestière du Nord-Ouest, a local co-operative of farmers and foresters.
Michel Hédou, a director of the organization's council, said the group began planting haskap five years ago after sending a delegation to the Lac Saint-Jean region of Quebec to meet producers.
"It's a fruit that can replace strawberries, raspberries or blueberries in any recipe," he said. "You just need to add a little more sugar because it's not as sweet as the other fruits."
The co-operative opened a U-pick in Saint-Hilaire, near Edmundston, for the first time this season. About 20 people have come each day to pick a few pounds of fresh berries.
Haskap berries can also be found in other parts of the province, including the Acadian Peninsula, where they're grown as small crops by blueberry producers. There are also growers in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
Roots in Siberia and Japan
Haskap is gaining recognition for its health benefits and marketed as a "super food." The berries contain a high amount of Vitamin C and more antioxidants than blueberries.
"Haskap is a mix of a sweet blueberry with a touch of tartness of the raspberry," Hédou said. "And some people even find there is a kiwi taste."
The plant is found naturally in Siberia and Northern Japan, where the waxy, green bushes have grown without cultivation for centuries. The plant came to Canada with the efforts of Bob Bors, head of the berry program at the University of Saskatchewan.
Bors has been breeding the plant for more than 15 years to produce bigger, more flavourful berries that are suitable to harsh growing conditions in the Prairies and other parts of the continent.
Hédou said haskap is proving to be a good addition for farmers, as its harvest fits between current berry crops, such as blueberries and raspberries, while allowing for efficient land use.
"The fields that are not producing good hay or are let go because they are not farming anymore, they prepare the soil, and they plant haskap plants there," he said.
The seedlings begin to produce fruit after just one year, but take two to three years before the plant is ready for harvesting.
Emerging market for haskap products
When the berries are harvested with a machine, some fall to the ground and become slightly damaged. The co-operative uses that fruit to make two varieties of a haskap drink at its production plant in Clair, N.B. One kind is mixed with water and maple sugar to sweeten it, while the other is a mix with blueberry juice.
The Coopérative forestière du Nord-Ouest also makes a syrup made with haskap concentrate and maple.
After being harvested in late June or early July, haskap can be used for baking, served with cereal, or even added into liqueurs, beer and wine.
The berries are generally suitable to New Brunswick's climate but growers have run into a few obstacles since starting to plant them.
Haskap begins producing flowers early in the season, which requires a mild spring, so bees are able to pollinate all of them.
The plants also require a moderate amount of heat and rain. High temperatures in late June matured the fruits 10 days earlier than last season.
Hédou said the biggest threat to his haskap crops are birds that love eating the berries. His fields are covered in protective nets while growing and decoys are used to scare birds away.
"The birds will empty our trees in a couple of hours," he said.
The Coopérative forestière plans to open the U-pick one final time on Tuesday before closing to mechanically harvest the rest. Hédou said he expects the fruit to continue to grow in popularity and a larger turnout next year.
"If you haven't had haskap before, you need to try them. You will probably like and love them."