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Haskup – the newest fruit crop for the prairies

Easy to grow and with an emerging market, Haskup might be a new niche crop on the prairies.


November 19, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

40aTiming the jump onto a bandwagon is always difficult. Should a grower risk
getting in on the ground floor, or wait until the crop is proven? But for a
new fruit crop being developed at the University of Saskatchewan, the risk is
smaller. Haskup, a bush fruit, appears to thrive on the prairies and markets
are emerging.

Haskup, or Haskappu, as it is called in Japan, is also known as blue honeysuckle
in North America. Haskup is grown for its fruit, which resembles blueberries
in taste. While it is a new crop to Canadians, it is well known to Russians
and Japanese. Blue honeysuckle is native to Siberia, north eastern Asia, Japan,
and the Boreal forests of Canada. In the 1950s, Russians began improving varieties
and the earliest work in Canada was on an ornamental version of the species
at Beaverlodge, Alberta.

"If you have tried the Canadian 'Sweetberry Honeysuckles', those old varieties
were never bred for flavour and are garbage compared to the newer varieties
from Russia," explains Bob Bors, an assistant professor at the University
of Saskatchewan, who heads up Canada's only Haskup breeding program.

Starting in 1998, the University of Saskatchewan began testing four varieties
of blue honeysuckle from Russia: Blue Belle, Blue Bird, Blue Velvet and Berry
Blue. In 2002, they obtained 15 cultivars from the Vavilov Institute in Russia
(a government gene bank mainly open to researchers) and 20 seedling lines from
the USDA gene bank. The program now has the largest collection of Russian cultivars
in North America, with 35 clones and about 2500 seedlings in the field. Now,
18,000 seedlings are being grown in the greenhouse.

In 2005 and 2006, Bors also brought back 45 clones and 2000 seeds of Japanese
types from the University of Oregon, where Maxine Thompson, the first researcher
in North America to collect, study and breed blue honeysuckle, maintains a breeding
program. Thompson is mainly working with Japanese types, since the Russian types
were unsuitable for Oregon conditions. Jim Gilbert of Northwood Nursery in Oregon
has also donated many varieties to the University of Saskatchewan program.

Well-adapted to the frigid prairies
Like the caragana, another tree imported from Siberia, blue honeysuckle is well
adapted to Canada's cold winter climate. While not as drought tolerant and competitive
as caragana, blue honeysuckle can withstand severe winter weather. The Siberian
varieties are said to be hardy to minus 50 degrees C and, indeed, in 2004 they
withstood minus 47 degrees at the University of Saskatchewan. "Nothing
died at that temperature. They are one of the most cold-hardy of all bush fruits,"
explains Bors.

In addition, the young actively growing shoots are tolerant of frost down to
minus 18 degrees C in the spring, and open flowers can tolerate minus seven
to minus 10 degrees C. And since blue honeysuckle is the earliest fruit shrub
to flower, often blooming in early May in Saskatchewan, almost a full month
before the last average frost day, that frost tolerance is important for fruit
production.

Blue honeysuckle is not self- pollinating and at least two, if not three, plants
are required to pollinate and set fruit. Many species of wild bees are important
in the pollination process, especially since they continue to work at lower
temperatures in the spring. Bors says that every effort should be taken to encourage
wild bee colonies, including establishing shelterbelts around blue honeysuckle
and minimizing pesticide spraying.

Water is important during the first three years of establishment. Russian literature
indicates that blue honeysuckle is mildly tolerant of drought. Eliminating weed
and grass competition also is important during establishment. In areas with
restricted precipitation, weed and grass competitions should be minimized, as
well.

Blue honeysuckle is the first fruit to ripen on the prairies, with berries
beginning to change colour in early to mid June, ripening within seven to 10
days during a normal year. Russian blue honeysuckle ripens all at once in Saskatoon,
making it ideal for mechanical harvesting. Unfortunately, the fruit also drops
easily, which, while good for mechanical harvesting, makes harvest timing difficult.

Most varieties have elongated fruit, which is two centimetres long with the
thickness of a pencil. Bors is conducting research on the shape of the berries,
including the solicitation of consumer preferences.

What makes them so good?
The flavour of blue honeysuckle varies from a desirable sweet/sour taste to
bland and bitter. While blue honeysuckle has its own flavour, most people describe
it as similar to a mix of blueberries and raspberries.

Bors says blue honeysuckle holds the same potential for use as other fruits
including fresh fruit, juice, jam, jelly, pies, cakes, canned and frozen fruit,
candies and chewing gum, ice cream and yogurt.

Russian research found that blue honeysuckle has therapeutic benefits in the
prevention of cardiovascular disease, reduced blood pressure, curative effects
for malaria, and on gastrointestinal diseases. Blue honeysuckle has high vitamin
C content and has antioxidant properties that include high anthocyanins and
phenolic compounds.

Bors is most excited about the Japanese market. In Japan, the Haskup market
is well established, with more than 300 tonnes consumed annually. There, Haskup
is used in beverages including wine and tea, as a tonic that claims 'golden
remedy for eternal youth and longevity', in jam, pastry and noodles, candy and
chocolates.

Part of the reason that Japan is a large potential market for Canadian producers
is that the area of traditional production is being paved over. Haskup is native
to Hokkaido Island, where the city of Sapporo is located. Today, 90 percent
of the valley where Haskup thrived is now urban land. As a result, Japanese
production has gone from 400 tonnes in 1985 to less than 100 tonnes in 2005,
yet demand is still high.

Haskappu Services, a Japanese company, is looking to work with Canadian growers
and processors to assess Canada's potential to supply their market demand. Currently,
the delivered price to Japan is $10 per kilogram. Delivery costs for frozen
blue honeysuckle is $0.30 to $0.50 per kilogram from Canada.

Bors says that blue honeysuckle yields one to two kilograms per bush in Japan,
but some of his older bushes in Saskatchewan had four kilogram yields last summer.
At recommended planting densities of 800 bushes per acre, 800 to 1600 kilograms
per acre production is possible. That makes gross returns at around $800 to
$1600 per acre (double that at a four kilogram per acre yield). Of course, processing
and input costs need to be deducted, but that illustrates the potential. Bors
conservatively estimates 750 acres would be needed to satisfy the Japanese demand.

Implementing a market development strategy
In an effort to differentiate the markets, Bors believes Haskup should be reserved
for either those varieties that come from Japan or those varieties that have
substantial amount of Japanese material in their lineage. "If we want to
market Haskup into Japan, it should be those varieties that the Japanese themselves
think are good enough quality to be called Haskup," explains Bors. "There
are in fact many small berried Russian varieties, some of which are bitter,
that are turning people off of this crop. As far as I can see, only the Japanese
Haskup or selections from the Kurile Islands (north of Japan and once part of
Japan) have genetic potential for breeding a large blue honeysuckle berry. I've
been calling my program 'Haskup breeding' because I fully appreciate the importance
of the Japanese Haskup and will be using them extensively as parents."

To help develop the fledgling industry, Bors envisions groups of four growers
working together, with 10 acres each. That spreads the risk and allows growers
to share production results. He says 40 acres is the 'magic number' that makes
sense for mechanical harvesting. Bors would also like to see the groups scattered
across the country, so that varieties can be better assessed across a wide range
of environmental conditions. Approximately 18 groups of four would be required
to meet the Japanese demand.

Bors also stresses the importance of working with Japanese associations to
ensure acceptable practices are used. A paper trail would be required for production
practices, quality and grading standards would be observed, field inspections
required, information shared among all parties, and a co-ordinated processing
and delivery schedule established.

"We're considering developing a strategy based on the California strawberry
model, which is quite successful in developing new varieties," says Bors.
"This would get growers and our Japanese customers involved in the selection
process."

Indeed, the process of developing this industry is well underway. During the
summer of 2006, 70 growers attended a 'Haskup' field tour at the University
of Saskatchewan, with growers from Saskatchewan, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta.
Another 40 growers attended a one day Haskup conference in October to organize
and set up a growers' association. Bors has sent 43 different berry samples
to Haskup Services for analysis and they visited the University of Saskatchewan
in the fall of 2006. A web site was also set up at: www.haskap.ca

While the amount of work to successfully develop blue honeysuckle into a viable
Canadian industry remains large, the potential payoff for those growers who
become involved in the research and development could add a nice little bump
to the bottom line. -30-