Are haskap berries a super food with a future in the Okanagan?

    Art Ardiel shows some of the haskap berries in cool storage. (Richard McGuire photo)

    By Richard McGuire

    If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never heard of haskaps.

    Art Ardiel hadn’t either until he was looking for something to grow on the property he owns with his wife Ewa on Road 22 between Osoyoos and Oliver and his mother suggested they should try this berry.

    “My mother was the one who suggested that we look at this plant, because we had some concerns about what to do with the land because of the high water table,” says Ardiel.

    They tried hay, but that seemed to be a waste of opportunity, so three years ago they took the plunge and planted haskaps, a shallow rooting plant that comes from the boreal forest and isn’t native to the Okanagan.

    They got a few berries last year, but this is the first year they’ve had a real harvest from the shrubs. Not only that, but they had fresh berries for sale at the start of June, a couple weeks before the first cherries arrived.

    There are numerous varieties of haskaps, but the taste and texture have been compared to a blueberry with a hint of raspberry. They are long in shape, like slightly shrivelled large capsules.

    They are not self pollinating, so plants are either male or female, both producing berries, and the male berries are slightly more tart.

    But aside from the enjoyable taste, haskaps have developed a reputation as a super food, one that’s said to have two to three times more antioxidants than blueberries.

    It’s sold fresh, dried and is used as an ingredient in health drinks. And because it’s still rare and is considered a super food, it sells at a premium.

    “It’s very comparable to goji,” says Ardiel.

    The Ardiels grow 12 different varieties that they license from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

    There, Dr. Bob Bors has spearheaded efforts to breed different varieties of haskaps, which are also known by other names such as honeyberry, blue-berried honeysuckle or sweetberry honeysuckle.

    Bors crossbred Russian and Japanese strains to come up with tasty hybrids.

    The berry thrives in cold climates, doing well in boreal forests with extemely cold winters and poor, soggy soils.

    This made Ardiel unsure how it would do in the Okanagan, where winters can get cold-ish, but summers are anything but.

    “We took a gamble and came to the conclusion that we have the right soil conditions,” said Ardiel, who lives on the valley bottom and says haskaps like more alkaline soil.

    “The only thing that really concerned us was the heat,” he added. “The plant seems to do quite well in the heat, because after you bury it, usually around the end of July, the plant will start to go into a dormancy state. So it requires a little bit of water. Not a lot.”

    Hot temperatures are a challenge for harvesting though, because it is a delicate berry.

    “Hand picking them, we find that if the temperature gets above 25 degrees outside, they get a little soft, so we stop picking,” he said. “The pickers have been showing up at six and we usually pick until about noon and then we process.”

    The plants themselves, however, are quite hardy and require little care other than keeping them free of weeds. Because they are a shallow-rooting plant, there is competition for moisture.

    This becomes a little less critical as the plants become established, but the plants still need to be kept free of weeds when they are harvested mechanically, which the Ardiels hope to do next year.

    When the plants reach maturity, Ardiel said they should be able to produce between seven and 10 pounds of berries each. This year, however, he’s expecting a more modest 3,000 pounds of berries from 7,000 producing plants.

    He has 3,000 more plants of North American and Russian varieties that were planted two years ago and aren’t yet mature.

    While the Ardiels are likely the only haskap producers in the South Okanagan, a few other growers have started up in the Southern Interior.

    One couple, the Kirkpatricks, running Kirkaberry Farms near Midway, are several years ahead of the Ardiels in the process.

    “They’ve been excellent, steering us away from where they’ve already been,” he said when asked if they’ve shared their knowledge.

    “But it’s still very much a learning experience for everybody,” he added.

    The pickers were mostly new to haskaps, though some were returning after helping the Ardiels with their plants last year.

    “The younger people seem to be more aware of it because it’s a new super berry, it’s an energy berry, it’s a power berry,” said Ardiel. “So most people that are athletically motivated and they’re out hiking and doing extreme sports, they are well aware of it.”

    In Asia, the berry is said to promote longevity and good eyesight among other claims.

    Ardiel said he’s grateful that Buy Low Foods has been selling their fresh haskaps in its local produce section.

    The couple has also taken their haskaps to Okanagan Falls to have some dried.

    “That is probably the way that most people would want them because if they’re backpacking up in the wilderness, you want the dried version,” he said.

    When interviewed in mid-June, the couple was also planning to try selling the berries at farmers markets.

    “You could do anything with this berry that you could do with a blueberry as far as baking, smoothies, that type of thing,” he said. “Our idea now is to capture some of the fresh market to give people an idea what it tastes like. The challenge is it’s the first product out this spring and nobody knows about it.”

    Art Ardiel shows haskap berries growing on a small bush. (Richard McGuire photo)
    Art Ardiel shows haskap berries growing on a small bush. (Richard McGuire photo)