Manitoba family trades grain for haskap after worst harvest in 50 years

A Manitoba farming family has swapped traditional prairie grains for a cereal filling that is gaining popularity in Canada.

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

Trena told CTV News the decision to switch came in 2019 after having the worst crop in half a century.

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

In September 2020, the couple obtained a license to grow 20,000 haskaps. The Zacharias said they chose haskap for its health benefits and the hardiness of the plant.

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

What is haskap?

Haskap is a new crop for North America, according to the Department of Fruit Science at the University of Saskatchewan. 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 in mid-June each year.

The plant also seems made for life on the prairies.

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

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

Schaffer said the berries are growing in popularity, but aren’t yet mainstream. He hopes that in the future, big growers will get into haskap because it can be harvested by machine.

NO BERRY IS BAD: REGISTERED DIETITIAN

Dietitian Kerri Cuthbert said she had heard of haskap, but had never tried it. In Manitoba, haskap is not readily available in grocery stores.

Cuthbert said from what she has seen, haskaps are much higher in antioxidants than comparable berries (blueberries, raspberries) and also contain more vitamin C than oranges.

“They appear to be very well-balanced, high-nutrition berries, like many other fruits,” said Cuthbert, clinical nutrition officer and registered dietitian at Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg.

She said the dark purple color of the fruit is a sign that a fruit is high in antioxidants.

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

HASKAP GROWTH TAKES TIME AND WORK

After a few years of haskap cultivation, the Zacharias did not produce 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, we had to water these plants all day, every day,” Trena said.

She said the shift from grain farming to organic berry production has proven laborious and it has been difficult to find people to work in the field.

“There aren’t really any similarities,” said Wayne, who added that growing grains takes three to four months from sowing to harvesting, while berries are a much longer commitment.

Next year will mark the third season for Haskap Prairie Orchard, which the Zacharias believe is when they can begin to reap what they have sown.

“Based on the growth they’ve had this summer, we’re expecting a good crop, lots of berries.

The plan is to open the haskap orchard in June 2023.

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