Look out, Cherry Capital, there’s a new berry in town. The blueberry look-alike is called the Saskatoon, and if it catches on, growers believe it could be as much of a dominating force in northern Michigan as it is in its native Saskatchewan, Canada.
Just ask Matt Rieshcl, a local grower who has, over the past five years, slowly expanded the Canadian berry’s northern Michigan territory, starting with a crop out in Northport, expanding to his own U-pick farm in Beulah, and reaching all the way to Traverse City’s own Ranch Rudolph, where he and his partners laid seeds this spring.
“This could be a real cash-crop for northern Michigan,” Rieshcl says. “The Saskatoons come in at the end of June or the beginning of July, harvest-wise, and they’re very frost-hardy. They can take cold temperatures and don’t slow down much, thanks to their Canadian ancestry. Our [Saskatoon] crops haven’t seen much frost damage this year, even though everything else got hit pretty hard.”
The quest to bring the Saskatoon berry to northern Michigan began seven years ago with Steve Fouch, former director of Michigan State University Extension for Benzie County, who had the vision of bringing another profitable crop to the area. Rieschl says he latched onto the idea, forming a partnership with a propagator from Canada and establishing a 50-acre crop of his own in Northport.
For Rieschl, the virtues of the berry – and its plant – made the risk a must. Saskatoons boast a unique flavor and high anti-oxidant, fiber and mineral levels. And, once the plants mature fully, trees can reach 15 feet in height, and crops can yield up to 2,000 pounds of berries per acre – all part of the reason they've created an $18-million-a-year industry in Saskatchewan, he says.
Though the Saskatoon has not caught on as the “new Michigan berry” quite yet, Rieschl has high hopes for its success as more and more local and regional crops reach maturity. In the meantime, he’s taken it upon himself to spread the word.
“I go out to all the local farm markets and sell to everyone, from everyday fruit buyers to home growers and gardeners,” he says. “We’re just hoping to get the attention of more major growers, so we can continue to expand.”
According to Steve Fouch, that kind of large-scale expansion could be only a few years away, as growers around the state and country prepare to take the plunge.
“A few people are going to start putting in larger parcels, and the harvesting of the Saskatoon is going to shift from U-pick towards mechanical,” he says. “Once that happens, I think we are really going to see it expand and move to the next level. I’ve been in touch with a farmer in Texas who is very interested in a leadership standpoint for this crop, and he wants to put in 50 or 60 acres over the next few years.”
Want to sample a Saskatoon? You can find the berries – frozen, or in jam, pie filling or Moomer’s ice cream – at the farm market at Jacob’s Farm, located 3.5 miles west of Traverse City at 7100 E. Traverse Highway (M-72).