Dark, Amber and Amber Gold Canadian birch syrups. Photo by Rory Hart.
A virtual cornucopia of wild edibles and non-timber products is ready to be harvested in the woodlands and boreal forests of Western Canada. While native bush may be something you want to protect forever as a heritage site, or clear off entirely for pasture or grain production, it also may be a source of commercial opportunities.
If you have 160 acres of bush, think about it, says Mike James, past president of the Woodlot Association of Manitoba (WAM), and educator and owner of the Boreal Woods Nature Centre near the southeast shore of Lake Winnipeg. WAM, founded in 1991, promotes rural woodlots, shelterbelts, treed lots and river bottom forest adjacent to agricultural lands.
James says the opportunities for new foodstuffs to be found within woodlands is endless: haskap (honeysuckle), sour cherry, sea buckthorn, buffaloberry, chokecherry, wild blueberries, fiddleheads and fireweed. Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD) also identifies these plants and berries as providing possible commercial opportunities: anise hyssop, aronia, basswood blossoms, bearberry, blackberry, blueberry leaves, chaga mushrooms, clover, cranberries, dandelions, goji berry, hawthorns, hazelnuts, hultiachoche, mint, nannyberry, pin cherry, rose hips, sarsaparilla root, saskatoons, senega snakeroot, spikenard, stinging nettle, wild grapes, wild licorice, wild plum, wild raspberry, wintergreen and yarrow.
A joint investigation into the potential for gathering or harvesting wild foods and woodland products was launched in 2014 by James and a retired colleague, Ken Fosty, former forestry technician with the Manitoba Forestry Association (MFA). Funding came from MAFRD.
At consultation meetings in early 2015, the two hoped to identify ideas for creating a sustainable woodland food industry. A report on that survey is currently being prepared. “Ken and I held six consultation meetings to see if people might be interested in growing or gathering wild foods, as an industry. We had meetings at The Pas, Dauphin, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk and Lac du Bonnet,” James says.
A winter storm reduced attendance at two meetings, but not enthusiasm. “There were only 56 people who came, but everybody was very supportive and most were enthusiastic,” he adds. “Up north, I think a lot of people are interested in supplementing their income with a cottage industry. In the south, I think interest is on the increase, especially among Hutterite colonies.
“The interest is there, it just needs somebody to organize and kick start it. It’s got to be done in an orderly way.”
James says support is available from institutions for people who want to explore commercial options for non-timber products from Prairie woodlands. For instance, in addition to WAM and the MFA, the Manitoba Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie is equipped to work with products at all stages, from good ideas to recipes, nutrition labels and early market development.
“The Food Development Centre has taken a number of these people to help them with their products, to a point where they can be sold with proper labels. They’re very supportive of this,” James says.
Several woodland-related programs are underway in Saskatoon, at the University of Saskatchewan’s (U of S) horticulture department and at the POS Bio-Sciences research facility.
“The main forest products we work with right now are haskap, sour cherry and apples,” says Ellen Sawchuk, horticulture research lab technician. “For haskap, we do the breeding work and release varieties. We’ve released six varieties to date and have another two coming in 2016 and 2017. The goal is to get haskap to become a commercially viable crop through Canada and the United States.”
The U of S has taken the haskap from obscurity in the bush as wild honeysuckle with small, blue, so-so berries to a gourmet’s delight, an early-bearing, dependable, high-producing sweet shrub. Haskap berries are the first fruit to ripen, in late June.
Western Canada now has more than 25 growers ranging between five and 60 acres of haskap. Most still process the berries at their own farms, into jams or syrups. They can also be eaten fresh off the bush. Larger growers will hit the market with commercial-grade products in 2016.
For large-scale haskap harvest, the U of S has imported a black currant harvester from Poland. “We use the same machine to harvest our saskatoons and our sour cherries, and our currants,” Sawchuk says. “It works quite well. We can harvest two to three acres of haskap in a half-day. We need three people, and it goes faster if we have one or two more to run the fruit into the cooler.”
Natural products from woodlands (and Prairies) are a major interest at POS Bio-Sciences, says Rick Green, vice-president of technology. POS has expertise in extraction, fractionation, modification and purification of “bio-based” materials.
Chokecherry, buffaloberry and sea buckthorn chemistry was the subject of a joint study between POS and Nicholas Low at the U of S. Previous work has investigated commercial potential for saskatoon and other woodland products. “Since the study was released, we’ve had some calls. There is interest in starting a breeding program for buffaloberry, and I can tell you some sea buckthorn is being grown in orchards here,” Green says.
Nutritionally, though mostly unknown or obscure to the public, all three berries have good potential for nutraceuticals or functional foods. Buffaloberry has about four times the level of vitamin C found in orange juice, and a good antioxidant profile. Chokecherry has a high level of antioxidant and polyphenol compounds. “All of these fruits have been used to some extent in your fruit commodities like jams and jellies and sauce recipes. But there’s increasing interest in extracting the value-added components. The next stage might be some clinical trials to show what the benefits are,” Green says.
The Birch Sap Opportunity
Tapping white birch for sap and syrup is a newly proven opportunity. Glenda and Rory Hart bought two pieces of land, about 240 acres, as a future retirement site near Grand Beach at the southeast end of Lake Winnipeg, moving there in 2001. They loved the native birch forest. Today, they’re tapping it.
For 2016, they anticipate tapping about 2000 birch. Using tubing and vacuum assist technology, they suck the sap into vats where it is eventually reduced to about one per cent of the original volume. If the season is very good, they may get 300 gallons of refined birch syrup after a three-week harvest. Then the work begins.
“Processing happens right away, on-site. After we finish making the syrup, we have to filter it and bottle it. We also market our own syrup. We bottle, we label, we do promotion, we drum up business in stores, we do farmers markets and shows,” Glenda says.
“From the forest all the way to selling it to the person for the table, we do it all. We have not been to Europe to promote it yet, but we have been to the U.S. We are hoping to build on a toehold there, in cities like Chicago and Denver,” she adds.
The couple launched Canadian Birch Company in 2012. They estimate Canada has up to 10 birch syrup producers, with most tapping fewer than 500 trees. They have created a unique version or niche product with the rare Amber Gold by making critical changes to the production process. They also have begun marketing a birch sauce.
Building public awareness takes big investment in time and money. “Promotion is tough,” Glenda says. “Rory searched out the right bottle for our product. We had a wonderful graphic artist come up with designs for the bottles and labels. We invested in excellent photography and excellent graphics for our website. They all work together.”
From an online survey of 10,000 consumers, evaluating innovative products in 33 categories, Canadian Birch Company Amber Birch Syrup won Product of the Year 2015 for innovative packaging in March 2015. “It means people would buy our product on the virtue of being attracted by the packaging,” Glenda says.