Ripe for the picking: how people are growing fruit that's not so common in Sask.

·4 min read
Wine grapes grow on a vine inside a greenhouse at Over the Hill Orchards and Winery near Lumsden. It's just one place in the province where you can find the fruit growing. (Adam Bent/CBC - image credit)
Wine grapes grow on a vine inside a greenhouse at Over the Hill Orchards and Winery near Lumsden. It's just one place in the province where you can find the fruit growing. (Adam Bent/CBC - image credit)

Elaine McCaig has a full garden at her home in Hudson Bay — about 330 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. But it doesn't just contain the traditional prairie fare of vegetables and herbs.

She's growing strawberries, elderberries and even a dozen cantaloupe, which are now in her kitchen ripe and ready to eat.

"(People's) first reaction is 'You can't grow that there,'" said McCaig. "And I say, 'Well, it's growing in my garden so obviously we can.'"

Submitted by Elaine McCaig
Submitted by Elaine McCaig

McCaig's botanical boundary pushing began when she and her husband moved to Hudson Bay from British Columbia in 2014. She noticed their new property had an over nine-metre-tall oak tree standing in the yard.

"I thought, if we can grow an oak tree up here, what else can we grow?" she said. "Why not push the limits?

Now, she's making jams and syrups with her unique bounty.

Nearly 400 kilometres southwest of McCaig, near Lumsden, Dean Kreutzer has also been experimenting with different kinds of fruit not commonly found in Saskatchewan for 23 years.

Kreutzer — who owns Over the Hill Orchards and Winery — affectionately refers to his operation as a laboratory.

"You test things and you fail and you succeed," he said. "It's just learning how certain plants react to the Saskatchewan climate."

Ethan Williams/CBC
Ethan Williams/CBC

He grows everything from wine grapes to figs and even peaches and nectarines. He says curiosity and a want for fresh, local food fuelled him to try growing it in Saskatchewan.

"Part of the process is trying to see if we can do this economically," said Kreutzer.

"Instead of buying peaches from B.C. or whatever, you'd be buying them from Saskatchewan. Can we do it? Can the quality be as good and can the cost be competitive?"

Sask. has long history with fruit

Growing fruit — especially crops not typically found here — isn't anything new in Saskatchewan.

According to the provincial government, apples were first bred here in the 1920s. Sour dwarf cherries —  a variety of cherry that can withstand the province's bitterly cold winter temperatures — were first introduced in the 1940s.

Even a variety of plum was first bred by a Doukhobor farmer near Canora in the 1970s.

The industry is also quite robust. An estimated 250 commercial fruit producers farm about 900 hectares of land in the province, according to the provincial government.

Those producers bring in around 2,000 pounds of fruit per year, raking in between eight and nine million dollars. That adds about $20 million a year into the provincial economy.

Climate change could affect fruit growth 

Peaches and grapes may soon become a more normal crop on the Prairies if Earth's climate continues to warm.

According to data from Natural Resources Canada, warmer plant hardiness zones — numbered and lettered zones that determine what can be planted where — have shifted northward over the years.

The plant hardiness zone map from 1981-2010 shows a large swath of extreme southern Saskatchewan moved from a level 3a or 3b rating to level 5a, when compared with the 1961-1990 map.

Higher zone numbers — among other factors — indicate warmer minimum temperatures.

Natural Resources Canada
Natural Resources Canada

A 2014 study in the journal BioScience looked at plant hardiness zone changes in relation to climate change.

"Overall, these shifts point to a coherent climate change signal across the seven climate variables that are integrated into the hardiness zone index values," the report notes.

John Pedlar, a research scientist with the Forestry Service of Canada, said the zone changes were most dramatic in western Canada.

"In Regina 50 years ago, the hardiness zone rating was a 2a, whereas when we updated our maps about 10 years ago, that rating had changed to a 3b," he said.

The extra warmth could mean more diverse fruit crops, but it could bring trouble with it, too.

Warmer weather could disrupt plants' natural dormancy periods, when they rest during the winter months. That could affect fruit production the next growing year.

It could also bring more diseases and pests, according to Bob Bors, an assistant professor of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan who also runs the school's fruit program.

Travis Reddaway/CBC
Travis Reddaway/CBC

"Our winters kill a lot of the insects that want to live here, or get them off to a slow start," said Bors.

One example, he noted, is the spotted wing drosophila — a fly-like insect that infests and ruins fruit plants in their ripening stage.

Bors said it's only a minor problem in the province now, "but it could become a major pest if it gets too warm."

Elaine McCaig said she's heard from people who have lived in the Hudson Bay area for a long time that they can grow things now that they weren't able to years ago.

She says she'll continue to push the limits on what she can grow in her own garden. Next up: honeydew melon.

"You might get something, you might not. But if you do, it's like 'Yes! We can do this.'"