PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
Getting To Know the Maritime’s Newest Fruit Sensation
What happens when an investment banker from Rhode Island and a civil engineer from Nova Scotia get married, have kids and decide to trade it all in for a farm in West Earltown?
“I told him I wouldn’t date him unless he agreed to be open to moving to Nova Scotia,” says Stephanie Banks, who attended university in Halifax and Alberta before taking a job in Rhode Island where she met her future husband, Joe Piotti.
In the fall of 2011, Stephanie and Joe, along with their two young children, moved into a rented home in Tatamagouche while looking for the right property: 10 to 50 acres close to the village.
What Stephanie fell in love with, however, was 200 acres on the top of Spiddle Hill, a twenty-minute drive from Tatamagouche. After fixing up the house and barn, the family of four moved in and started their homestead with chickens and pigs.
Realizing they needed to do something with all their land, Stephanie and Joe travelled to Bridgewater in 2013 for an information session hosted by the Haskap Growers Association of Nova Scotia.
“We did a blind taste of six red juices,” Stephanie says. “Blueberry, pomegranate and combinations of berries. We all tasted and rated each one. We had no idea what we were drinking. All but one of us rated the haskap juice number one.”
The couple found the results so compelling, they bought three thousand plants that year and started working on an orchard. Now, six years later, Sweet Earth Farm has planted ten acres and is a certified organic grower of haskap berries.
Joe says the blind taste was significant but there were other reasons for committing to haskap.
“Blueberries and strawberries were suggested but getting into an existing conventional crop wasn’t where I wanted to be. The market’s already established, it’s already being dictated, and you can’t change anything. You can’t make a difference.”
The haskap berry, which looks like an elongated blueberry, originated in Siberia and ended up in the northern hemisphere through migratory birds eating the berries and leaving seeds behind during their migration.
Growing in the boreal forests of North America, and in every province in Canada except Newfoundland, the wild berry is tart and thin-skinned.
In 1998, a group from Japan approached university scientists in Saskatchewan and Oregon to see about creating a sweeter, tougher skinned berry that humans would find palatable and could be picked by machine.
The result? Haskap cultivars that are creating a demand for this up-and-coming fruit.
According to Stephanie, “Anything you can do with
a blueberry, you can do with a haskap.”
That demand, and his desire to make a difference, means former banker Joe Piotti got involved with the growers’ association to help other haskap farmers make a difference through a cooperative business model.
“We want to be able to control our own destinies instead of competing with each other,” explains Joe. “That’s the goal. So this is how we make a difference: to allow a farmer to actually make a living off of farming. Isn’t that just crazy?”
Currently, Joe is chair (volunteer) of the Haskap Marketing Group (HMG), a cooperative of farmers and growers that began in 2015.
“Every farmer, no matter how big or small the farm, gets one share and one vote. Everyone’s treated equitably. Now, your volume of crop will dictate what you make as a farmer so that’s fair. But everyone has input.”
HMG started out selling berries in bulk, frozen, to companies who take the fruit and turn it into a product they can sell. The group regularly pre-sold their stock so they didn’t have a chance to think about creating their own products right here at home.
According to Joe, the board and the members realized they want to have more control, and they want to have a bigger impact. “Not necessarily impact for our own shareholders and our own farmers,” Joe explains, “but these crops were leaving the province. All the economic benefits were being done somewhere else.”
Last spring, HMG launched its own brand of haskap products under the name Hazzberry Farms. “This is the farmers taking it one step farther,” says Joe. “Instead of just harvesting the crop and selling it to a food services company that would make a consumer product out of it and sell it, we’re doing that.”
Neither Joe nor Stephanie have an agricultural background, and they’re like many haskap growers. According to Joe, as chair of HMG, that’s actually a benefit.
“The skill set that the people of our group bring to the table is not just a farming knowledge or growing knowledge but an overall business acumen. These people are wonderful to work with; the kind of collective thinking and the concepts and ideas they come up with are exceptional.”
Haskap Sweet HaskapThe haskap berry has the undeserved reputation as a sour berry because it is often picked when it turns blue. For a haskap, colour is not an indication of ripeness; sugar content is. The ripeness (sweetness) of a berry can be determined by tasting it or by testing the juice in a refractometer.
A refractometer measures the percentage of sugar (degree Brix) in any liquid with just 2 or 3 drops. A ripe haskap will have a sugar reading between 15 and 20 degrees Brix.
Canadian haskap are extremely hardy and are the first fruit to ripen, generally in the first part of June. Birds love to eat haskap berries so growers, even at home, need to cover their plants with netting or risk losing their crop before it ripens.
Jackie MacDonald is the nursery manager at Scott and Stewart Forestry Consultants in Antigonish, a licensed grower and seller of haskap plants. According to Jackie, the home gardener needs varieties that will pollinate each other, and she recommends these three cultivars that work well together: Borealis, Berry Blue and Aurora.
For more information: Visit scottandstewart.com or call Jackie at 902-968-1082.