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Saskatoons: plenty of potential

Commercial saskatoon growers and processors are working to meet the challenges of this emerging industry.


November 19, 2007
By Carolyn King

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34aWith a yummy taste and a basketful of nutritional benefits, saskatoon berries
are attracting commercial growers and processors, as well as consumers around
the world. But like any emerging industry, saskatoon production and processing
face some challenges.

Saskatoon berries are higher in protein, fat and fibre than most other fruit,
and they are a good source of manganese, calcium, vitamin C and iron. Like blueberries,
they are very rich in antioxidants and anthocyanins, which are important in
promoting health and fighting a range of diseases.

"Commercial production of saskatoons in Manitoba began around the late
1980s, about the same time it started in Saskatchewan and Alberta," says
Anthony Mintenko, fruit crops business development specialist with Manitoba
Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI). At present, several thousand
acres are in commercial saskatoon production on the prairies.

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Mintenko estimates that in Manitoba as of 2006, about 600 acres have been planted
for commercial production and of that total, about 400 acres are now producing
berries. In terms of the area planted, saskatoon production is the second largest
commercial fruit crop in Manitoba, after strawberries, because it grows under
a wide range of conditions and orchards have been springing up across the province.
Most operations are u-picks, but some are growing the fruit for processing.

"Overall, the biggest challenge for the saskatoon industry is that we
have more demand than supply. We need more acres planted across the prairies
to meet that demand. For any new food product in the world, you have a certain
window where people want that product. But if it's in short supply, then the
demand starts to disappear. I think that's a danger for export sales of saskatoons,"
notes Mintenko.

While Mintenko sees great potential for farmers to diversify into saskatoons,
he identifies some important considerations for growers. "The main challenge
is for people to understand that it's a high value horticultural crop, different
than traditional crops, that requires intensive management."

One key management issue is pest control. He says, "Saskatoons are a native
prairie plant so there are pests that have evolved alongside it. When you take
it out of the wild and put it into more of a monoculture setting, like an orchard,
there are insects and diseases that will attack that orchard."

A major concern is entomosporium leaf and berry spot disease. It can result
in total defoliation and total loss of marketability of the fruit. "There
are several fungicides that help control this disease," notes Mintenko.
"We have just finished our first year of a two year project to develop
a disease control model… to help growers decide when will be the most effective
time to spray for leaf and berry spot. I think that will be a big step to help
growers control this disease. We hope to have up to 100 orchards across the
prairies testing our program."

He adds, "There needs to be more research on saskatoon production and
breeding. There really isn't any breeding going on. Improving pest resistance
would be the first priority for a breeding program."

Another important challenge for growers is that the shrubs take several years
before they start producing berries. "On a commercial scale, you're not
looking at sizable yields until about year five or six; sometimes in year four,
you'll get a little bit," Mintenko says. "People have to look at it
as a long-term investment because you're not having any revenue come in until
probably year four or five. Your yield stabilizes at its maximum from years
six to eight and it will hold that level for quite a while, perhaps 15 or even
20 years."

He explains, "You'll see a return on your investment by year 10 and after
that, it's a very good return. But if someone is looking for a retirement project,
maybe they should be looking at it as something for their children to take over."
John Ritz of Prairie Lane Saskatoons in Petersfield, Manitoba, makes a good
comparison with wineries and grape growing: it is more of an estate. "So
maybe we need to look at this more as a saskatoon estate. In the wild, these
plants live longer than 50 years, so we think in a commercial setting you should
get about 30 years of production."

A further consideration for growers is that, for saskatoon orchards, size matters.
Mintenko says, "Many of the u-picks are about an acre and that's a lot
of berries and a lot of work. You're looking at yields between 2000 and 3500
pounds an acre. When you are at a smaller scale, it's not normally feasible
to bring in a mechanical harvester, so it's all hand picking. Once you get past
five or 10 acres, then it's more economically feasible to do mechanical harvesting."

The berries are sold as fresh fruit or are processed in some way: frozen, dried
or in a food or beverage product. "On the processing side, probably the
main challenge is the lack of large scale processing facilities for saskatoons,"
notes Mintenko. He adds, "It's a young industry and development of larger
facilities is something that will happen once growers get more organized and
more berries are being produced. It's just a matter of time." There are
only a handful of saskatoon processors in Manitoba, at present.

People who have grown up on the prairies are probably familiar with such homemade
delights as saskatoon pies, jams, jellies, toppings, relishes and even wines
and liqueurs. But turning a home recipe into a viable commercial product takes
time and effort to adjust the recipe to suit large batch processing needs and
ensure sufficient shelf life, and conduct a nutritional analysis for proper
labelling, among other considerations.

Processing of saskatoons in Manitoba is gradually becoming commercialized with
the help of MAFRI's Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie. Mintenko
says, "That's where a lot of people who want to get into food processing
get their start. The facility is large enough that it can handle a pretty big
capacity. So let's say someone has a niche market and they are making jams or
something that they sell in specialty shops. The Food Development Centre is
large enough to allow them to make big enough batches to do that. So saskatoon
processing is in that in-between stage: they are past making it in their kitchen;
they are in a commercial setting but they are still making it on their own.
They are not ready to, for instance, contract a big processor to do it."

And of course the product has to be marketed. Saskatoons are not well known
outside the prairies, so processors hoping to export their saskatoon products
have some special marketing challenges. In fact, saskatoons made the national
news in 2004, when the European Union designated the saskatoon berry as a 'novel
food', meaning that it had not been proven safe for human consumption. Mintenko
was part of a team providing information to support Canada's case "that
saskatoon berries were consumed in substantial amounts historically so they
would be classified as a traditional food." The process took about a year,
but Canada's case was successful and the European Union has classified the berry
as a traditional food.

Saskatoon processors like Prairie Lane Saskatoons are now working on expanding
their markets around the world. With the berry's high levels of antioxidants
and other nutrients, processors can capitalize on the rapidly growing market
of health conscious consumers.

Mintenko says, "Saskatoons are seen not just as a dessert but more of
a way to increase your fruit consumption in a day and as a health product. And
that's how it is being marketed in Europe – it's healthy for you and it
tastes great." -30-