A conversation with two experts on haskaps (aka honeyberries).
First up is Bernis Ingvaldson, who owns and operates The Honeyberry Farm with her husband Jim in Bagley, MN, about two hours south of the Canadian border. They grow about two acres of honeyberries along with many other alternative fruit crops.
Next is a conversation with Dr. Bob Bors, Assistant Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan and North America’s premier haskap breeder. Bob has been breeding haskaps for over 20 years, with a focus on mechanical harvesting, and has released 10 varieties in that time.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Bob Bors 0:10
My old boss said why be one of the top 100 strawberry breeders when I can be one of the top 10 haskap breeders and I had that mentality when I came here. What can I be top 10 in, when I ran across haskap and went, oh, I can be top 10 in those, hardly anyone’s doing that.
Steffen Mirsky 0:49
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. My name is Steffen Mirsky, and I’m an Outreach Specialist for emerging crops in the state of Wisconsin with UW-Madison Extension. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to two experts on haskaps or honeyberries, as they’re also known. For the first 25 minutes or so. I talk with Bernis Ingvalson, who owns and operates The Honeyberry Farm with her husband Jim, in the far north town of Bagley, Minnesota, near Bemidji. There they grow about two acres of honeyberries, along with many other alternative fruit crops like sour cherries, aronias, currants, elderberries, seaberries, goji berries, kiwi saskatoons, raspberries and cranberries. A very impressive list for sure. They also sell mail order live plants through their online nursery at www.honeyberryusa.com. Fall is a great time to order transplants, so check out their website if you’re interested. They also have great resources and information available through their website. It really is a great resource. There’ll be a link to their website on the show notes. The second half of this episode is a conversation with Canada’s only and one of one of North America’s very few haskap breeders. Bob Bors, Assistant Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan has been breeding haskaps since he joined the department and first tasted them in June of 2000. Yes, they were already ripe in June in Saskatchewan. In his words, he became very excited and has yet to calm down. Since then, he has released 10 varieties of haskaps, and built up a world renowned collection of genetic material and the world’s best has kept breeding program, winning him awards for his work. His superior selections have given birth to a whole new industry. You can sense his enthusiasm for the crop throughout our conversation. I have to say I got pretty excited about haskaps after these conversations. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Thanks so much Bernis for joining us today. Can you just describe your farm a little bit?
Bernis Ingvalson 3:14
Well, thank you, Steffen. Yes, we are located just a couple hours south of the US Canadian border, and both four and half hours north of the Twin Cities. So we are in solidly in zone three. And our farm is set up to grow whatever we can grow in zone three, as far as cold hearty fruit and specializing in some of those special berries such as haskap, or the honeyberries, tart cherries, currants. And we’ve actually found out there’s a whole lot more we can grow here than we originally thought. So we have a U-pick of three acres. And our main emphasis though, is mail-order nurseries. So we send out plants in the spring and fall for home growers and commercial growers to plant their own crops.
Steffen Mirsky 4:18
How big is your farm? How many acres?
Bernis Ingvalson 4:21
Well, I guess we have about 212 acres total. But a good portion of that is allocated to some hay for local beef cattle farms. And we only have about I guess about three acres of U-pick three to four acres.
Steffen Mirsky 4:40
And so what what portion of those three acres do you grow honeyberries on?
Bernis Ingvalson 4:47
We have over about two acres.
Steffen Mirsky 4:51
Okay, so it’s your primary crop,would you say?
Bernis Ingvalson 4:54
Yeah, about a half acre of tart cherries and some saskatoons Along with currants red, white, pink and black currants, and we have a demo plot with some seaberries. So we have quarter acre of elderberries. So it’s a mishmash a little bit of everything. Yeah, so nursery goes, I should say, We’re distributors. So we bring in plants from commercial greenhouses that propagate the plants and then we distribute them to our customers, we also do some planting and grow them out, some of them out for larger sizes that we can offer our customers. And so we have about an acre of that nursery production.
Steffen Mirsky 5:40
Okay. So let’s get into the the honeyberries a little bit more. What varieties do you grow?
Bernis Ingvalson 5:50
Well, I have over 50 different varieties in our demo plot. And there are dozens available commercially from several different propagators. But we try and narrow it down so that we don’t totally overwhelm our customers and, you know, offering a few early-bloomers, mid-bloomers later-bloomers. And we’ll get into that more in our discussion, but we have about a dozen available that we are offering at this point.
Steffen Mirsky 6:21
Okay. And what are some of the main differences between varieties?
Bernis Ingvalson 6:28
Well, if you look at the genetics, well, first of all honeyberries do grow around the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, there are even some here in Northern Minnesota, I imagine there’d be some of northern Wisconsin as well, as well as in Canada. And while we don’t use those commercially, yet, at least, there’s some reading and research going on with them. Most of the genetics originates from northern Japan, or Russia, Siberia, specifically. So the two main differences is the Russian genetic material tends to be more upright, growing and more elongated berries, while the Japanese genetics can be an upright or a bushy bush, and maybe more round berries. So the Japanese genetics are more suited towards more temperate climates that you would find in Hokkaido, where a lot of the genetics comes from, which is more temperate than some of our zone one, two, and three, places where we grow where the Siberian varieties would be more comfortable.
Steffen Mirsky 7:42
So do you primarily grow the Japanese varieties, then?
Bernis Ingvalson 7:46
Well, we’re zone three, we can grow anything. They’re all happy here. Yeah, but the Russian ones, because they have a shorter growing season, whenever it warms up in the spring, they shoot out with their blossoms, and they’re ready to get going. And so if you plant a Russian variety in a more temperate zone, and it gets warm in January, and then it gets cold again, you don’t want them to break dormancy too early. So that’s where we advise growers to grow the Japanese varieties in zones six through nine probably.
Steffen Mirsky 8:21
So do you send out plant material throughout the entire United States?
Bernis Ingvalson 8:27
Oh, we do. Yeah. And we, usually while especially in the fall, would send bareroot. And in the springs, mostly bareroots. Some of them are potted, kind of diversified, depending where we get our sources from. So the three main sources of breeders would be the Canadian varieties from the University of Saskatchewan breeding program. Then there would be some of the Russian or Japanese varieties from Lidia Delafield’s breeding program in Arkansas, and Dr. Maxine Thompson, who is now deceased. Her breeding program released several later blooming Japanese varieties. She was located in Oregon.
Steffen Mirsky 9:16
So you’re sending out transplants? Correct? And are those like year old or?
Bernis Ingvalson 9:24
Yes, either year old or even two year old potted plants, which we would partially bareroot depending. We prefer to send them when they’re dormant because any plant will transplant better when it’s dormant, or totally bare root even if they’re totally dormant, we can totally bareroot them for easier shipping, and they look like dead sticks when you get them. But stick them in the ground and you should see some leaves pop out real soon.
Steffen Mirsky 9:50
And so how long do people have to wait until they can expect their first crop?
Bernis Ingvalson 9:57
Well, we always tell people that you can always get up a berry on year old branch, if you have one branch, you might get a berry or two the next year you have a few more branches, you would get a couple more berries, the third year you might get a handful. But after that, like the fourth, fifth year, production really ramps up because you will have more branches that will be producing more delicious berries.
Steffen Mirsky 10:18
So let’s talk a little bit about how and where to plant honey berries, what do they like in terms of soil conditions, soil pH, water, sun, etc?
Bernis Ingvalson 10:31
Well, they are in the honeysuckle family. So they are not like blueberries, even though they are a blue colored berry. They’re not a blueberry that likes acidic soil. So you want to plant your honeyberry in soil, like 5.5 ph all the way up to eight, eight and a half. And they like organic matter. If you have a sandy soil that you know, you have to water them extra, they have shallow roots, so you want to clear away any of the encroaching grass or weeds. And other than that it’s pretty simple, dig holes, put them in. Usually they take off really good.
Steffen Mirsky 11:11
So they’re not a high maintenance plant. They basically fend for themselves pretty well.
Bernis Ingvalson 11:15
Not like yeah, if you just give given them a chance at first few years, especially. But yeah, keeping that encroaching grass away is very important since honeyberries do have shallow roots. And as far as p redators that the deer, they may go after them when they’re young. But after they put on a few years growth, the wood is the branches are kind of woody and not very attractive to deer. So that’s another bonus. Rabbits, if they’re really hungry in the winter, they can go after them. But yeah, they’re they’re pretty good, vigorous. And since they’re on their own rootss, they will just grow back more branches the next year.
Steffen Mirsky 11:53
Okay, so they sometimes help you do a little bit of pruning.
Bernis Ingvalson 11:58
That’s how we like to look at it.
Steffen Mirsky 11:59
Yeah. I guess while we’re on the subject, let’s just talk a little bit more about pests and diseases. Do you know besides the mammals we just talked about? Are there insect pests or any other diseases that you guys have to deal with?
Bernis Ingvalson 12:16
They’re quite disease resistant. I would say some of the varieties are a little bit more susceptible to powdery mildew, mildew. And, but since they blossom and fruit so early in the season, as summer wears on, and if the leaves do get some mildew, they will be going dormant soon anyways, and just come back good the next year, so.
Steffen Mirsky 12:42
So how big do these plants actually get? What is your plant spacing?
Bernis Ingvalson 12:48
Well, some varieties, the smallest varieties are kind of slow growers. And you know, after 10 years, they’re still only a couple of feet tall. But the ones that we like to promote would be more like five foot tall bushes, with about five foot spacing. And like, you know, getting five to 10 pounds of fruit per bush at that age of maturity. varieties that can grow, we have some out there that are 10-12 feet tall and just about as wide. But after 10-12 years with no pruning.
Steffen Mirsky 13:24
Okay. So five feet within the row, how far your rows apart from each other?
Bernis Ingvalson 13:31
Well, in our orchard, we have 10 feet spacing in one plot, which at this point, some of the rows are pretty you can hardly walk through them if we because we haven’t ruined some of the rows and five is just to see how big they will get. And part of it is just keeping up with maintenance. So I would recommend actually wider spacing than 10 feet, like 14 feet or other newer patches is has wider spacing and depends on the equipment that you’re going to be using for the home gardener. Yeah, 10-12 feet should be adequate.
Steffen Mirsky 14:11
Do you do regular annual pruning on your plants?
Bernis Ingvalson 14:15
Not until they’re older and it depends on the variety. The Japanese need a little bit more renewal pruning. Whereas there are some varieties they just keep growing and growing, growing and then at some point, you might just want to cut them off a foot from the ground and it sacrifices a year of growth but then you will have a rejuvenated plant.
Steffen Mirsky 14:41
So let’s talk a little bit about harvesting. Are you harvesting by hand or do you have some piece of machine that you’re driving and doing harvesting with?
Bernis Ingvalson 14:51
Well, it all depends on the scale farming that you’re doing for the home gardener. One bush and some people just like to get out there and handpick and call it their therapy. It is very lovely. But you know, beyond a bush or two, then people start to think about maybe better ways, little faster ways to harvest these. So then we move to the shake and drop. And it can be as simple as just putting a large tub underneath and swatting the bushes with your hand, and the berries will drop in. And we’ve experimented with all sorts of ways to clean the berries that would like to take a leaf blower and just blow some of the leaves off. And then the next scale up is what we call more like the cottage producer, you know, up to an acre. So then we would move to putting a tarp on the ground. And we’ve actually acquired a couple of olive harvesters that have mechanical fingers on the end of a robot that will shake the bush gently and drop the berries. And it’s quite a lightweight apparatus. Yeah, so we like to use that or when we’re harvesting, you know, a couple 1000 pounds. But beyond that, you would want to definitely move up to like a blueberry picker type machine.
Steffen Mirsky 16:15
Okay, so the berries will actually drop off the bushes once they’re ripe. Is that true?
Bernis Ingvalson 16:22
Yes, they do. So that is a pro and a con. The pro is that you can drop them, harvest them easily. And the con is, some of them start dropping before others if it’s an uneven ripening variety, and some of them may drop in the wind. So it’s always a good idea to put something down, keep your ground underneath clear. So if they do drop, you can always gather them daily, whatever drops, and at some point, just decide that they’re going to harvest the whole bush.
Steffen Mirsky 16:56
So on your scale, what what type of harvesting equipment are you using?
Bernis Ingvalson 17:01
Well, since we have a couple acres, we do have olive harvesters that we use and we use the floors to remove the debris.
Steffen Mirsky 17:09
Okay. So how fragile are these berries?
Bernis Ingvalson 17:14
Very fragile, which is why you don’t see them on your grocery shelf, or on your fresh produce shelf. Now we do supply a couple of our local stores supermarkets in the summer with fresh berries. But because the skin is so thin, they can be damaged very easily. And then the berry juice escapes. And it’s yeah, you can think of sort of like a raspberry but even maybe a little bit more tender than raspberries but they’re very suitable for you know farmers markets and direct you know. Daily we pick and sell pre-picked berries. You know they have a shelf life. I’d say five, six days usually if they’re kept chilled.
Steffen Mirsky 18:07
So I was gonna ask, How do you know when the berries are ripe? What kind of signs do you look for?
Bernis Ingvalson 18:14
That’s a great question, Steffen. So most of the varieties turn dark, purplish, when they’re right, but they can turn purple and not be right for another two, three weeks. So they’ll be green and then turn actually a light purple and overnight they get a little bit darker and like the second day, there’ll be a dark purple and outside but you bite into them and it still does not have a very palatable taste. But as a fruit ripens on the bush, the sugars will build up in the fruit and so we recommend two to three weeks that people wait until they picked. But how do you know when they’re ready? You basically you taste one? And if you like it then pick it, if not leave them on for another few days.
Steffen Mirsky 19:05
Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about the the nutrition of the berries and and the flavor. Can you just like describe what the flavor is like?
Bernis Ingvalson 19:17
Well, I just tell people think of all your favorite berries. Mix them together and maybe that’s what the honeyberry well tastes like. Throw in some raspberries and grapes and blueberries and and kiwi maybe and it says singing now they’re called honeyberries not because they’re super sweet like honey but because they are a honeysuckle. But you know, if you find them a little tart, there’s no reason why you can’t put in little honey or just some sugar and you know, honestly, of all the jams that I make of all our berries. I’d say the honeyberries hands down are the number one preferred jam. Yeah, yeah, there’s just something. There’s something about the berry that makes your body feel good. And it tastes so good. Speaking about, you know, the nutritional profile, and it’s very high in vitamin C, and not to mention all the antioxidants.
Steffen Mirsky 20:24
Yeah, I was reading about the amount of antioxidants and it seems like it’s much higher than even the next closest berry.
Bernis Ingvalson 20:32
Yes, yeah. There really is a fantastic nutritional profile to this berry. And the amazing thing is, is really how it tastes. Yeah.
Steffen Mirsky 20:45
Let’s dive into the your markets a little bit. So you mentioned that you have a U-pick farm. So that’s obviously one way that you sell the berries. What other? What other markets do you have?
Bernis Ingvalson 20:59
Well, we are able to shake and drop, you know, several hundred up to a couple 1000 pounds depending on the year and and how much we have sold via U-pick. And how much we decide to harvest ourselves that we put in two, four or five gallon buckets, stick them in the freezer. And then we have jam makers that have caught on to how much their customers were really like this flavor, and we’ve sold to some wineries and breweries. It’s very versatile. And there’s a lot of potential there. And it’s just, you know, keep getting the word out.
Steffen Mirsky 21:44
Yeah, interesting. So that this berry is used to flavor beer and wine, and you can probably give it some color to
Bernis Ingvalson 21:50
Fantastic color. Yeah, well, burgundy reddish color. Oh, I forgot to mention ice cream. Oh, yeah. Yeah, there’s there’s huge potential for that.
Steffen Mirsky 22:04
Interesting. Do you make ice cream then and sell it or?
Bernis Ingvalson 22:08
While I do you know, we make our own homemade ice cream once in a while. And here’s a little the, the topping overtop of it. And, yeah, when I make my jam, I call it a jam topping. Because it goes just as well on pancakes and toast, ice cream. I even use it as a dipping sauce for egg rolls for Chinese food. So it’s it’s a super versatile, and just waiting there for people to discover it.
Steffen Mirsky 22:34
Yeah. And so what kind of price are you getting from your berries?
Bernis Ingvalson 22:39
You know, 10 years ago, we started out at $5 a pound. And because it was a very exotic berry, and very few people have, you know, we’re able to offer it at that point. And we’re one of the few U-picks in northern Minnesota. But we’ve kept our price at $5, which we’ve had increased production. And we’re still happy with that. At this point, other farms have have raised their price. And we try and keep it in line with other you know, maybe specialty crops like raspberries that would be hand picked.
Steffen Mirsky 23:20
Well, I think we’ve covered a lot. So just to kind of wrap things up. Is there a plug that you would make for people to start growing honeyberries? I mean, everything that you’ve said so far sounds like it’s a pretty easy crop to grow. And the taste is really good. So tell me what’s not to like about it?
Bernis Ingvalson 23:40
Well, here’s, I guess the caveat here is the birds like them very, very much. So be prepared to net them. Otherwise, you will be sharing them. And the cedar waxwings are the berries worst predator. I think they just absolutely love them. So that is a serious consideration is how you’re going to keep the birds away.
Steffen Mirsky 24:10
What strategies do you use? Is it just bird netting or do you have others?
Bernis Ingvalson 24:15
For the home gardener, yeah, definitely, I would say invest in a good bird netting that you suspend away from the bush, otherwise the birds can sit on the net and poke through the net. So you want to have more of a cage there. At our home farm, we have one site that is quite out in the open and we do have overhead netting there. It’s about half an acre of overhead netting. At another site we have about an acre and we share with the birds. We have a Russian variety that’s tall, upright growing with smaller berries that we share with the birds and thankfully by the time some of the later ripening varieties ripen, they’ve moved on. And they found their migration path has taken them elsewhere. For the most part, we have enough with the whole acre to share with the local robins that are residents here.
Steffen Mirsky 25:20
That’s generous of you. Well, thanks, Bernis, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today about honeyberries. And you have a, you and your husband have a great website, www.honeyberryusa.com. Right?
Unknown Speaker 25:39
Yes, I just, you know, 12 years ago, when I started learning about this, I didn’t know anything about them. And I just put, I say, my brain on our website. So I tried to put everything I’d learned on to share with people and I welcome feedback and input from other growers from around the country as well. And we have a Facebook group. It’s the haskap honeyberry grower Facebook group, and there’s a lot of good conversation discussion going on there as well.
Steffen Mirsky 26:08
And now we’re going to continue on the topic of haskaps with Dr. Bob Bors of the University of Saskatchewan. So I’ll just have Bob, introduce himself a little bit and talk about his breeding program. But my first question, Bob, for you is – honeyberries or haskaps? What do you call it?
Bob Bors 26:31
Well, I call it haskap because that’s actually the oldest word in the world for this crop. The Ainu people of Japan, of Hokkaido, called it down there. They were the first ones. We think they had hundreds of years of using it before the rest of the world knew about it. And well, I mean, honeyberries is not…they don’t look like honey, they don’t taste like honey, and I think there’s actually a tropical plant called a honeyberry also. So I don’t like that as much.
Steffen Mirsky 27:11
Maybe more of a marketing name.
Bob Bors 27:15
Yeah, I guess.
Steffen Mirsky 27:17
Yeah. Okay. Well, we’ll call it haskap for this conversation. So can you just give a little background on your breeding program and your work?
Bob Bors 27:25
Well, the breeding program is now 101 years old. And it’s I think it’s the northern-most breeding program in North America for most of the crops. We’re breeding, like we’re colder than all the other breeding programs in Canada. Although there might be an amateur north of us doing apples or somebody here and there, but I’ve been here since 1999. And my old boss, I actually grew up in Maryland, and worked for a breeder who was a strawberry and raspberry breeder, who dropped strawberries and said, “Why be one of the top 100 Strawberry breeders when I can be one of the top 10 raspberry breeders.” And I had that mentality when I came here. What can I be top 10 in? That no one’s doing much, right? Even though my PhD was on strawberry breeding, when I ran across the sour cherries and the haskaps and went, “Oh, I could be top 10 in those, hardly anyone’s doing that.”
Steffen Mirsky 28:41
Are there even 10 breeders working on haskaps around the world?
Bob Bors 28:45
In Russia, there would be. There may be actually close to 10 stations in Russia that had bred it there. Maybe they’re not all active now. Okay, but there’s only one in Canada. And I think there’s only one left in the US right now. But maybe somebody’s breeding it somewhere else but
Steffen Mirsky 29:08
Okay. All right. And so what is it that you’re breeding for? What are your objectives?
Bob Bors 29:17
Well, when we first got haskap, we had only four varieties when I got here, and they just started fruiting. I think they were planted two years before I came here. And then we noticed the first year I was here and started breeding in 2001. For early varieties, berries weighed about a gram. There were a thin as a pencil, like the top part of a pencil, the metal part. They’re about that size. They all fruited like the third week in June and so I was looking for mechanical harvesting. And the Japanese version was a different plant: uneven ripening, round berries, but it’s ripened two weeks or more later than the Russian stuff. Just by breeding them together, I’ve gotten a whole assortment that will…instead of just the end of June, or the third or fourth week in June, all of July. I’ve even eaten some in September now, you know, on a cool year. So, spreading out the harvest to be different weeks in the summer. Also, blending, the Russian varieties tend to be sour, but have more character than some of the Japanese ones that tend to be sweet but boring. And if you breed the two together, you might get that sweet and sour combo. That’s, that’s nice. There’s disease resistance, and lately I’ve been breeding with some that grow much faster but the original version tasted horrible, like concentrated tonic water. And actually the first varieties of haskap in Canada in the US, the bugnet type were bred as shelterbelt plants. And they taste like concentrated tonic water. They were never intended to be eaten. But they knew they were edible because Russians were eating it or something. They were eating a better flavored version, not what we had in Canada. And some nurseries called them sweet berry honeysuckles, which was a total lie, they should have called them utterly bitter, horrible honeysuckles would have been a better names. But they grow much faster, so I’ve been trying to breed them to grow faster and bigger plants with that, but they’re not…. The this is the third generation of breeding. And some of them are no longer….they’re boring. Not that you have to spit them out immediately upon tasting them. But the new varieties, the newer varieties have a really good blend of sweet and sour and aroma and much bigger berries.
Steffen Mirsky 32:23
Okay. So can you talk a little bit about the collection at the university? Like where did you get those varieties?
Bob Bors 32:34
Yeah, well, some I got from Russia that were bitter. When I wrote a polite letter to the person who was the top haskap person. And I listed the newest varieties I saw on a list from all the breeding stations, and wrote a polite letter. I said, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m ordering all the new ones. Please send me what you think I should have. And they actually sent me like 15 varieties that tasted great. And so that was from the Russian side. Maxine Thompson in Oregon who passed away a couple of years ago, I met her at a scientific meeting of the Horticulture Society, and that was in Toronto. And she talked about haskap and I befriended her. I visited her three times and sent graduate students two times to help her harvest and she said, I could take whatever cuttings I wanted, but just don’t breed something that’s more than half mine. She had mainly Japanese material. Okay. And then I got invited to Japan. And they took me around to places where I gathered material. And then I went across Canada on a sabbatical gathering, I think 1400 plants from across Canada. So we have some of the most diverse collection. Also, I befriended the new head of the fruit gene bank, who was more of a botanist, who loved especially the obscure subspecies like the one that tasted terrible but grew fast. And there were other ones. And so he sent me seeds of this, Dr. Sorokin. So I think I have the most diverse collection because I’ve got the only collection of giant North American ones, plus Russian and Japan material.
Steffen Mirsky 34:40
Can you talk a little bit about the differences between the varieties that come from those different regions?
Bob Bors 34:46
Yeah, I think the Russians bred them for the home gardener and they weren’t thinking harvest mechanical harvesting. They come off the fruit come off so easy. You don’t actually have to grab each berry. You can, I call it the ticklemethod, but your viewers won’t see it. But you go like this on the underside of the branches with your fingers and the fruit will drop off. And they also bred to be the earliest possible berries. Because if you’re a homeowner, you don’t want to be the one on your street to be the last one to get your haskap, you want to be the first one. But that’s not good for mechanical harvesting and orchardist because the berries tend to fall off really quickly when they’re ripe. Right. Whereas the Japanese material, I think had less breeding in it. They had actually big berries in the wild, and they tend to ripen unevenly. But both the Japanese and the Russian ones. You can have good tasting ones, or poor tasting ones or boring ones, you really have an assortment of flavors. The Northern European ones that are like in Norway and Finland, and eastern Russia, those are the ones most likely to taste disgusting. And actually, it comes to whether berries evolved with birds or mammals. I heard some birds only have like 30 some taste buds. When you taste a wild berry that’s bitter, that has tons of antioxidants, but it tastes disgusting. So mammals don’t like it. But birds like them. They usually like little berries that are bite size. So they like the little tiny berries. Something like a chokecherry is bite size for them. Some of the weedy berries, they would eat those. But mammals, especially like deer and stuff, with big nostrils, they often smell where the berries are, and go find them and eat them that way. So you get bigger fruit like an apple, you know, something they could really chomp into better than a little tiny haskap berry or something. So that’s a fun thing to mention, like why some of our berries are small and inedible to us. But they probably make those birds last a long time because they are loaded with antioxidants that are healthy. But you couldn’t get kids to eat those berries. Better give them the diluted form of those antioxidants, so they aren’t so bitter, but taste great. So the big berries are better for us mammals.
Steffen Mirsky 37:56
And so how many varieties have you actually released through your breeding program?
Bob Bors 38:03
I think it’s up to nine now. Okay, the first ones were actually released as numbers. And I imagined in my mind, well, I’ll release the the five best. And after a few years, the farmers will tell me which is really worthy. Right. And when I found that was a horrible strategy, because everyone everyone wanted all of them named. So my two favorite were Tundra and Borealis. And the other three were Indigo series, Indigo Gem, stuff like that. But I actually had farmers over from my first haskap day, and I told them, they could taste these other numbers that I’m testing. And I said in five years, we’ll have something worthwhile growing commercially. And they all looked at me like I was an idiot. They said, Bob, these tastes so much better than what’s on the market. If you wait five years, no one will want anything. They’ll taste either the sour Russian ones or the boring ones at the time that we had from Japan or that bitter one. And these tasted great. And but I knew they were too short. They were smaller bushes. So five years later, I had Aurora and Honey Bee as its pollinator. And today Aurora is the number one variety in the world. Okay, there’s more firmness. But then there’s the Boreal series which are even later ripening. Okay, a farmer, that you know, if you’re going to go the expense of buying a harvesting machine, you don’t want to use it one week of the year. You want to you wouldn’t want to hire 25 employees for one or two weeks. Wouldn’t it be better to have eight employees that work for six weeks or two months. Right? And they have a steady, every week they have so much to harvest and pack in the freezer or whatever. So that that makes it logistically for a farmer. Really good, but it also makes it good for gardeners. You know, gardener can have some, you know, an assortment of bushes and a have fruit over a longer period.
Steffen Mirsky 40:28
Yeah, so you mentioned that these varieties need pollinizers. Um, can you just talk a little bit more about why they need pollinizers?
Bob Bors 40:40
Well, actually, I tell him, I teach a fruit course, close to 80% of all flowering plants, fruits, need cross pollination. And some of those that don’t need cross pollination, it’s only because breeders found the right plants, like strawberries, in the wild. A lot of them are male or female plants. Right, but they found the ones that had complete flowers. A lot of the wild raspberries, you had to have two different type of varieties. So in an urban setting, where like, many people have apple trees, you could plant one apple tree, and probably one of your neighbors has an apple tree too. So you don’t worry about that. The same might be true with plums, but haskap has to have two cross pollinating ones. And most people are not aware of the cross pollination at all. Especially if they’re in the city. Or if they’re in the country, they might grow more than a couple of varieties, because they want to try different varieties. But you really need not only two varieties, but two varieties that bloom at the same time, and that are genetically compatible. Right. So if you go to a garden center, they might be vaguely aware and say something like, oh, we need two plants. Well, that’s not true. If you plan to have the same variety, it’s not going to work. For many crops, having two varieties is going to work. Like you could get 20% of the time, like a couple apples don’t get to get around or a couple has cap or a couple blackcurrants aren’t going to work. But it’s an oddity. But if you’re a farmer growing, you’re going to grow an acre this stuff, you want to be really 100% sure that it’s not that 20% that aren’t compatible. So it’s I did a lot of research on crossing our varieties with each other. Probably if you had a Russian variety in ours, it would be pretty good. But it’s not 100% certain, but it’s maybe 80%.
Steffen Mirsky 43:07
Can you say the names of the top varieties? You mentioned Aurora and Borealis, would you say that those would be good performing varieties in Wisconsin?
Bob Bors 43:21
Is this mostly commercial growers or home gardeners?
Steffen Mirsky 43:25
I think our listeners probably span the whole gamut from backyard gardeners to small scale, maybe a few acres.
Bob Bors 43:35
If I had to choose only two, I would go with Aurora and Beast because those both have higher flavor ratings, and they overlap pretty good. And they’re pretty good production. But I wouldn’t grow any of the older varieties unless you want them for ornamental. The original ones, Tundra, Borealis, Indigo Gem. They look very beautiful, but they only get like three or four feet tall. They don’t have as much fruit. Right? They would look like they would be a beautiful hedge to grow together. The newer va rieties the Boreal series, if you’re a commercial grower, they would be extending the season through July. And I named Boreal Blizzard has the largest berry and many people think that tastes the best. But maybe they’re influenced by the berries being unusually large. They’re shaped like a surfboard. And they’re like they’re a little bit flattened and take they have a really cool look to them. And they can be almost three grams. The other ones are like two grams. And like the original ones we started were only one gram so you can pick them faster but it’s a smaller bush. Okay, but Beauty and the Beast, Boreal Beauty and Boreal Beast are the late. Beast pollinates all the other varieties. And it grows kind of rampant. But Beauty is something that sometimes is ripe into August for us or last week in July. And it is a beautiful berry. It’s kind of shaped like a heart. Like it’s kind of rounded with a heart. And it’s, it actually weighs almost as much as Blizzard was. Yeah, so to recap, Aurora and Beast would be my favorite two, if you’re only going to grow two, and they would be Aurora might come in end of June for us. First week in July and Beast would be early July to mid July.
Steffen Mirsky 45:52
Okay. And Beast would would be a good pollenizer for Aurora?
Bob Bors 45:58
Yeah, and also the other two Boreal series. Very productive and hold on to its fruit for much longer than some other ones.
Steffen Mirsky 46:08
Which is good for mechanical harvesting. Right? So are all these varieties that you just mentioned? Are they suitable for mechanical harvesting?
Bob Bors 46:15
Yeah, except the earliest one. I mean, you could people are mechanically harvesting Tundra and Indigo Gem, and they taste great. But they take several more years to come into full production. And most harvesters won’t harvest the bottom foot of a brush. So is everything two feet up, they’ll have fruit a year after you plant it. But you might only get 10 berries or 20 berries. And it’s not worth it to bend over from for harvesting for a commercial operation but the homeowner certainly is worthwhile picking those berries.
Steffen Mirsky 47:01
Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about the mechanical harvesting techniques and what the what the equipment or the machine looks like?
Bob Bors 47:12
Yeah, the there’s two basic differences. One of them is what’s called a sideways harvester. It has a set of rods, like a spindle that goes all the way around and the bush goes in. But the sideways harvester goes into the middle of a bush and pushes half the branches down over a conveyor belt. And the spindle with fingers on it shakes the berries off. With the sideways harvester, the fruit only drops about a foot so it doesn’t get very damaged. And it goes on conveyor belts. And there’s a fan to blow off the leaves and little scraps of things. And that comes out on a conveyor belt. That version of the machine is tougher on the plant because it has to bend the branches to like a 45 degree angle. And it’s also better if you’re pruning your plants to have like an open center. So the branches are naturally more at a 45 degree angle, and your fruit will be less damaged. But the branches when they get maybe an inch thick or so you should prune them out because they might get broken in that machine or something. The other type of harvester is an upright harvester. And it has two spindles next to each other, you might think of two bottle washers standing upright, but they’ve got little metal or plastic rods that spin around and vibrate. But those machines can be up to two yards tall. And if you had fruit at the five, four or five, six feet mark, it goes splat all the way down and it gets more damaged and bleeding. But the branches don’t have to be bent over. So it’s easier on the bushes but rougher on the berries and haskaps tend to be on the soft side of fruit. Although Aurora is considered one of the the toughest of the fruit on the market now, which is why a lot of the Europeans ranked it as number one. Buy they can only take so much dropping like some of the fruit are two and three feet only dropping a little bit but some are smashing all the way down. So you got to do something with that fruit right away. So when I had to buy a harvester for the university…had to. It was a great joy to actually they gave me the money to do it. We were imitating harvesters by whacking our hands against branches and having little kids swimming pools to pick up the fruit. And then seeing how smashed they were, but, okay, where was I going with this? Oh, at that time, the Saskatoon berry growers, which are sometimes known as Juneberries in the States although they ripen in July for us so we hate that name. It’s named after my city, Saskatoon. The largest commercial operators of saskatoons were using the sideways harvester because it gave less damage to the fruit. We have previously shown our dwarf sour cherries could be harvested using that machine if you pruned it right. So I said, well, the Saskatoon guys, they’re harvesting their fruit, mid to second or third week in July. And at the time, all the haskap was before that. So I was thinking, oh, you could have your haskap crop with this machine. Then the last half of July, you can go for your Saskatoon berries. And then our sour cherries are the first two weeks in August. That fills out the whole summer. So you have three crops. But you can also use that machine on raspberries or black currants. But we don’t happen to be doing too much breeding on currants and stuff. You can have five crops with that harvesting machine. But people use the upright ones too for those crops, but the upright ones, you have to thin them to have more narrow rows. Because if a plant is wide, like if a plant is, is two feet wide, that machine has these little, they call them fish plates that go around it. The fruit could drop down the middle of that plant and go on the ground. And you could get twice as much fruit on the ground. But that machine is cheaper.
Steffen Mirsky 52:25
So I was gonna ask you, yeah, how much? How much do these machines cost roughly?
Bob Bors 52:31
Well, the original sideways harvester costs 40,000 in 2010, and the company wanted us to have their newest machine, which was now worth 70,000. But they souped up a lot of, like they made it harvest berries lower, they had wheels in the back that could move into the bushes, they improve the fan system so there’s a bit of a vacuum that the fruit don’t drop as much. And the other ones, I think it depends on where you go. Michigan has a trade show. Have you been to the Great Lakes Trade Show? I saw five different harvesting machines for berries. And some of them I think are $200,000. The tractor is built into the machine and rides above the row. And then you have your rows closer together. And some of them are like the sideways harvester, they open the center up and do both sides though at once. I think you can get used ones for like 20,000. Probably you could go from Wisconsin go to the blueberry growers in Michigan and get some cheap ones better used. I know in Canada, the BC blueberry guys automatically get rid of their harvesters after five years or so because they don’t ever want it to break down during harvest season. And the prairie guys buy them and fix them. Like they might give them a new motor they might strain out all the bent rods or replace things in it and get them to go a few years more or something. I’ve heard of people getting them for $10,000 used. I should say economic people say if you got 40 acres of fruit, you definitely better own a harvester because harvesting costs. Harvesting by hand costs half your expenses as a grower.
Steffen Mirsky 54:48
So you think 40 acres is the threshold?
Bob Bors 54:50
Well, that’s what they said. I think I think you could do it with less than that or maybe share a harvester between a few friends or something. Yeah, sharing is sometimes hard to do.
Steffen Mirsky 55:07
Maybe we could talk a little bit about production practices, what kind of row spacing and like plant density. What would you recommend?
Bob Bors 55:19
Well, some varieties are quite different on whether they’re more upright or not. Like our first ones, they grow way too wide. They actually grow just as fast as some of the fast ones. But I saw a Tundra row that was eight feet wide. And it was there for almost 20 years. And that was way too terrible. But we had been saying three to five feet apart, depending on how…with mechanical harvesting, you really want a solid hedge because the harvesters tend not to get the middle of the bush as well. And because they drop to the middle of the bush. And if you have plants that are well spaced, that never touch each other, you have down the middle of the row, you got all this fruit that might not get harvested as well. So that’s one thing. Another thing is, I think most important is not to plant…. If you’ve got flat land, don’t have any grass near them for the first few years. Keep it bare soil, or very minimal grass strip in there. Because grass really stunts the plants at a young age. Don’t take a pasture and plow out a couple feet row and plant your haskap. They’ll just be totally stunted. I’ve seen farms that have had four year old plants that are one foot, one and a half feet tall, put into a modified pasture even with plastic on it. And I’ve had my bare root on my bare soil. Four years later, they’re four feet tall and now becoming a commercial operation. And the stunting is amazing. When I gathered haskaps in the wild across Canada, wherever there was grass growing, like I’d see. They’re in wetlands, right. So I look for black spruce trees that are doing poorly, because they’re much taller, and maybe Tamarack and some other species doing poorly. If there was grass growing then I would rarely find any haskap. But if it was so wet that the grass wouldn’t grow, I could find haskaps. I like the grass once it’s close to fully grown. And especially if you’re mechanically harvesting because if the berries have some branches that are overladen with fruit that brings them down to the ground and you get a lot of rain, you might get mud or dirt on your berries. And a lot of growers don’t want to wash their fruit, they want them to be high up enough. As soon as you wash your fruit, then you’ve got to dry your fruit, or they’re going to rot really quick. So the timing of the grass… I like to have the grass planted maybe at the beginning of the season that you know you’re going to mechanically harvest. Now some people grow in plastic. And that’s okay. We don’t grow plastic at the university except demonstration. Because we change our orchards every decade or so because we’re a breeding program. We might grow 5000, 3000 plants from seed and keep five plants. Right. So we don’t want all that plastic to pull up, but many growers like to grow on plastic. That helps. We tend to do preemergent herbicide within the row and then cultivate but really shallow cultivate between rows and your other space. The row spacing between rows depends on how big your tractor is and your harvesting machine. Which unfortunately you don’t know how big what harvesting machine you’re gonna get. You’re probably not buying it three years or four years before you can use it. I think it’s maybe safe to go 15 feet between rows. For your initial planting and don’t plant too much, until you know what you’re doing if you’re a commercial guy. And you might narrow that if you got one of these better harvesters or something. But we planted a lot of our rows 13 feet apart. And then the bushes got three, four feet wide. And now our rows are only eight feet apart. And some of our tractor wheels are running over some of the plant branches on the edge.
Steffen Mirsky 1:00:27
Yeah. Yeah, that’s important to think about.
Bob Bors 1:00:32
I guess the other thing is you have to think of in planning is if you ever harvester, how much turn space you do have at the end of the row? Our sideways harvester is one of the longest harvesters. And we didn’t plan in some of our early orchards to have enough turning space. So we had to run over the last six plants in the row to demonstrate that a harvester could work on it. But now we’ve got it all figured out. Like we tend to have a road at the end of our rows for going in and out on both ends, and that tends to make enough space.
Steffen Mirsky 1:01:16
Okay. Yeah, things you don’t think about until you’ve until years down the road. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how you determine when the berries are ripe? Because I know Bernis talked about some people. They pick them prematurely when they think they’re ripe, but they’re not actually ripe. And so she mentioned that that’s one reason why haskaps may have gotten a little bit of a bad name.
Bob Bors 1:01:48
Yeah, and actually it’s similar for blueberries, that they both look ripe several days or a week before they are ripe on the inside. If you bite into the berry, haskap has very colorful skin that leaches into the middle. And the thinner berries will be red all the way through. The really fat berries sometimes have a little, a little bit of green in the middle, but most of its red. And they if they’re unripe they taste like long grass smells. Not that I’ve ever actually chewed on long grass. But if I did chew on it, that’s what the flavor I think haskap berries has a grassy flavor when they’re not ripe.
Steffen Mirsky 1:02:44
Okay, okay. Right.
Bob Bors 1:02:47
Yeah. And the original bugnet type, which is spelled like “bugnet”. I sometimes call them bug nets. Those are the ones that tastes like concentrated tonic, or did I bring that up yet? I just talked to somebody in the hallway about it. Yeah, yeah, like concentrated tonic water. So they’ll always be bad. Okay, never get better than the tonic water flavor. But the grassy flavor disappears. Okay, but that can be a week later. Because they actually start blooming here a month before the last frost. They can take minus seven Celsius. I only know celsius for negative temperatures.
Steffen Mirsky 1:03:40
Yeah, I can’t do the calculations in my head.
Unknown Speaker 1:03:43
Like 25 degrees or something or 27? Yeah, they could be. Most fruits, you go 30 degrees, and they’re dead. These can go a little colder than that. And usually our last frost free date in Saskatchewan is around June 1. And that’s when the earliest varieties are starting to change color. So they’re more tolerant to freezing conditions. They say they can take minus 10 Celsius if it’s not windy. Physically, they leaf out at the same time the flowers are blooming, so that can hold a little bit warmer air in the bush. But if it’s windy, forget it. Or if it’s misty or high humidity, it might not.
Steffen Mirsky 1:04:44
Have you ever had issues with poor fruit set because the flowers froze out or weather conditions just were not optimal?
Bob Bors 1:04:53
Yes, I think some years when we’ve had too much rain for a whole week. One year, our Russian varieties didn’t have anything. It just was weird that it rained a lot. It may be too windy, these don’t like it to be windy. And if you don’t have a shelter belt, it’s more likely that you’ll have bad wind. The other thing about that’s really kind of bizarre about haskap is each berry actually has two flowers. If you were to cut, cut them across, cut them open. At the right time, you’d actually see within the haskap berries, actually two separate berries. So they originate from two flowers and then they have a sheath that covers the two berries and make it look like one. But what happens is, each flower tends to open on a different day. One side opens. Like I’ve got photos of these, a full open flower and the other ones half open. So you can get a scenario where one flower of the berry open one day and the next flower…it was rainy or windy and it didn’t get pollinated. And then instead of having a roundish berry or a surfboard one, you get a crescent-shaped berry. Because the side that didn’t get pollinated didn’t grow. And the side that got pollinated made like a half moon. I know there’s a variety from some other program that has a crescent in the name. And I wonder if it’s notorious for not getting pollinated somehow.
Steffen Mirsky 1:06:47
Bob Bors 1:06:49
Yeah, fun. So bad crop because well, one of our growers had minus 10 and windy and they froze out. Poor pollination if you don’t have enough bees. This year, I think we had too many haskap fields. And we rented or we bought bumble bee hives, and we put them in our variety trial. And in our nursery area, where we screen our seedlings, for what the fruit look like before we plant them, like we have them growing in pots. The fields closest to where we had our bumblebees had normal production. But we had two fields in the far north of our fields…we have 80 acres about, mostly fruit in our program. The northern fields farthest from all the hives had extremely poor set this year. And so I think we should have bought more bumblebee hives. But we really didn’t care about those. We already evaluated those fields and weren’t paying attention to them.
Steffen Mirsky 1:08:08
We just have a few minutes left, but I definitely want to talk about yield potential on some of these varieties. How many pounds can you…you probably you work in kilograms…can you expect in an average year?
Bob Bors 1:08:22
Well, when we were studying, I studied yield of some of our, our varieties and how big the bushes were. So a cubic meter, which would be nine square feet, tended to yield close to a kilo of fruit. Okay, so that would be 2.2 pounds or something. So the bigger the bush, the larger ones. I think some of the newer varieties, you could get six or seven pounds eventually. In Poland, which there’s one of the largest propagators of haskap in Poland, is growing our varieties and Russian ones and they also have great yield data. And Boreal Beauty was close to 60% or so more yield than the next best variety. They were getting like three kilos at a young age, and everything else was getting two kilos. I think at age three or four that we’ve never got that much yield. But all our newer varieties are more productive than our older varieties by far and the Russian varieties for us, in our trial were much… they took an extra couple of years to come into production. But ours were bred under our conditions, which, right at the University of Saskatchewan, we have rather high pH soils. Like 7-7.9. One of my graduate students did a pH study on haskap and hydroponics and actually the bushes grew much better under low pH, like 5.5. They still looked healthy at eight. But that was in hydroponics, which is the perfect balance of everything of plant needs. When I went and did a soil survey map around Saskatchewan, above 7.9pH, I never found a good orchard. I never found anything good at eight. I found bad orchards at all pH levels. But some of the better ones tended to be in the 6 zone. So more adaptable than blueberries. And I wonder if the Russian varieties were bred at lower pH than ours or something. They weren’t coming into production as much as ours.
Steffen Mirsky 1:11:20
Okay. So just to kind of wrap things up. What do you see as the market potential for haskaps? It seems like they’re growing in popularity, maybe a little bit? Where do you see the the future for haskaps?
Bob Bors 1:11:43
Well, they, they do have a relatively short harvest window. But they can be used for a lot of products. Like, you can make wine with them. I think better than any grape we could grow in Saskatchewan. In fact, we fooled some professors from France who didn’t realize it was haskap wine, they were trying, they thought it was red wine. And when they found out it was haskap, they wrote down the genus and species name in their notebooks. But it’s great and the good varieties taste really good. They’re great in jam, they’re great in pastries, added to yogurt, in baked goods. Pies, they make a mushy pie, but so do other fruits make mushy looking pies, like lemon meringue pie, but they’re great for a lot of things. A lot of babies, I’m fettered by prejudice, love has haskap berries when they’re fresh. They’re also super high in nutraceuticals. I think that double berry has…all the nutraceuticals are in skins, and haskap skins…like if you take a frozen haskap berry, the skins dissolve in your mouth. So we’re not talking about skins that are tough to chew through or anything, but all those skins have nutraceuticals and it has a double layer of skin inside the two berries in the sheath, so they have triple the skin of a blueberry of the same weight. But they’re also a northern plant that has a lot of stress. So they naturally produce a lot of nutraceuticals. And if I have too much nutraceuticals they taste disgusting, but the average haskap has more nutraceuticals than the average blueberry. But you can actually find a blueberry that’s better than the worst haskap. There were people going crazy saying haskap is twice as good as blueberries. And then they got bored, saying three times, four times better. Well, you’d have to find the worst blueberry, and the best haskap to find it four times better. When I was going around telling people’s haskap is three times better than haskap. The best haskap is three times better than the worst one. But we need a little more research on the what the health value is. Because we just know a general range for haskap. We don’t know for all of them. What specific variety is the health value but part of the future we think. We think that’s why blueberries took off. Because there was a lot of research not only done to make them taste better and shelf life and stuff, but they also did a lot of health value research on blueberries. Right so people are willing to pay more for a blueberry, knowing that not only does it taste good, but it’s good for you. Same thing was with haskap. It’s one of the more nutritious berries we have. And it can taste really good too.
Steffen Mirsky 1:15:18
Yeah, it seems like haskaps have a lot going for them. And maybe that they’re an underrated crop and have a lot of potential. I mean, they’re healthy, they’re adaptable, you can grow them in a lot of different environments. There may be a climate smart plant to grow, or early maturing. So yeah, I hope some people who are listening to this will decide to grow haskaps and discover them for themselves. But is there any any final words that you want to share?
Bob Bors 1:15:52
They really are a northern crop. So if you grow your Wisconsin, right, right, and you grow up in Wisconsin, your neighbors to the south are going to have a hard time. They they won’t be able to grow. And I’ve had people from Texas call me sound very disappointed when I said, sorry, you can’t grow that here. I’m so used to thinking the other way of what I can’t grow in Saskatchewan, to have something I can grow that they can’t in warmer areas. And it’s just a fun crop to have something like this, to have a crop earlier than strawberries. Like, we have haskap that ripen before, during and after the Junebearing strawberries, well for us they’re July bearing strawberries. So as soon as you get something earlier, that’s cash flow coming in. Earlier in the season, people want that.
Steffen Mirsky 1:16:54
Well, I’m excited about them. I’ve never tried one before, but I really want to.
Bob Bors 1:16:59
You should get some from Bernis. She probably makes jam or something.
Steffen Mirsky 1:17:03
She did, she actually offered to send me a jar of jam after our conversation. Well, thank you so much, Bob. This was really insightful, and I’m so glad you’re able to make the time to talk to us about haskaps.
After my conversation with Bob, he mentioned to me that he puts on an annual haskap school, which is a two day event. The first day is classroom lectures. And the second day is out in the field. And this, this event attracts people from from all over, including the states and next year’s event in 2023 might be happening in Idaho. So if you’re interested in that, I will put a link in the show notes to the University of Saskatchewan fruit breeding program webpage where you’ll be able to find out more information about this event and other research updates on haskaps. I also wanted to mention that I did receive a jar of honeyberry jam. And yes, the label actually says honeyberry rather than haskap, from Bernis. The jam really is as good as she made it out to be. So I encourage you all to try it. You can order it from their website at www.honeyberryusa.com. Or maybe find it at your farmers market, Co-op, or grocery store if you’re lucky. Thanks again for listening.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:18:38
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison, Division of Extension.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai