A decade ago any mention of haskap berries was likely met with little more than a scratch of the head or a blank stare. While these uniquely oblong berries, often also called honeysuckle or honeyberry, or by the technical name lonicera caerulea, have grown considerably in popularity over the last few years, they’re still largely unknown or misunderstood by many fruit lovers. Kreg Alde, the farmer behind Broken Tine Orchard near Beaverlodge, Alberta is making it his mission to make haskaps the go-to berry in Alberta and the rest of Western Canada.
Alde started growing haskaps in 2012. He’s a fourth-generation farmer and his family has always grown grain, but when he took over his family farm and was looking for a way to diversify his crops, he stumbled on haskaps, a fruit that, like most people, he had never heard of before. As a lifelong berry lover Alde was interested in growing a fruit hardy enough for the Alberta climate.
He was considering huckleberries, but his research pointed him towards Russian honeyberries — which, by sheer coincidence he actually found growing wild on his land as remnants of a mid-century agriculture research program conducted by the federal government — though he quickly discovered that the berries were too bitter to eat. This led Alde to the University of Saskatoon, where researchers had been breeding a hybrid of lonicera caerulea plants from two parts of Russia and Japan that produced plump and juicy berries that were far superior to those wild honeyberries on Alde’s farm.
“The berries from Japan were a sweeter, larger berry and when the University bred them with the two varieties from Russia it created a hardier northern version. It was all done through old fashioned breeding techniques,” Alde says. “Now we've gotten more and more newer varieties as well. They grow really well in Canada and taste amazing. It's like a cross between a huckleberry and raspberry.”
Alde secured some cultivators from the University and Broken Tine was born. He knew he had a nice flavourful berry on his hands but needed to figure out how to market them — who was going to buy this little berry with the odd name if they didn’t even know what it was? Haskap farmers have touted the high levels of antioxidants in the berries and the local nature of the crop, which had earned haskaps a bit of a superfood status, but they still are far less known than blueberries or saskatoons.
Alde drummed up some regional awareness by making a haskap dessert topping that he started selling to his local IGA, which put it on top of cheesecakes and other baked goods. That, along with a haskap wine that was a judge’s selection in the 2017 Alberta Beverage Awards, was a success, but Alde knows that it’s going to take a lot more work to get the average person to use haskaps on a regular basis.
“When you start a new industry you have to create that demand,” he says. “Once people taste these berries they really sell themselves, so it’s really just a matter of people discovering them. It takes some time for people to search for them and then it takes a bit longer to get them into the stores. There’s also a bit of a bubble in that we’re trying to get enough of the product out to people so they want it, but we’re not producing enough for the bigger stores to grab onto it.”
To solve this supply and demand problem, Alde has joined forces with other haskap farmers from Western Canada to create Vitalaberry Farms, a collective that pools resources to better leverage their crops while maintaining consistent packaging, quality, and food safety standards. Since, as with most berries, the window of fresh haskaps is relatively short, the collective is selling bulk frozen or pureed berries to food producers to turn into haskap liqueur, haskap ice cream, or other tasty treats. Vitalaberry also has two retail products of its own: jars of that haskap topping and stand-up packs of frozen berries that can be used for baking, sauces, smoothies, or anywhere else a consumer would use a frozen blueberry.
Vitalaberry Farms has certainly expanded the haskap’s reach — the products are available in select Sobeys stores throughout the province and have been used by ice cream producers like Foothills Creamery, Village Ice Cream, and MacKay’s, and distilleries like Grand Prairie’s Broken Oak, though it’s sometimes still branded as “honeyberry.” Alde hopes that within the next five years or so production will pick up enough that larger food companies will be able to use haskaps in larger scale products.
“I really think that one day it will become Canada’s number one berry. I think it will eventually overtake the blueberry,” Alde says. “When I look back at our agricultural history, if haskap berries had been brought in first, they’d be everywhere. They really flourish here in Canada.”