UP looks like berry good ground for Saskatoons

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Field crop educator Monica Jean explains the findings of Michigan State University Extension crop research, along with Jim Isleib, to an audience of local farmers at a December presentation held by the extension.

MASS CITY — Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and…Saskatoons?

Michigan farmers grow a variety of fruits, but more obscure varieties are being eyed for commercialization.

MSU crop researchers focusing on novel berry varieties are looking at their viability for Upper Peninsula farmers.

“(We want to) identify superior cultivars for Michigan and to start generating some dependable science-based information on these plants and these crops with advantages and limitations. So it’s kind of preliminary work which I think is interesting,” said crop production educator Jim Isleib.

Currently, research is focused on varieties of goji, aronia, Saskatoon and haskap berries.

Named after the largest city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatoon is a North American native and is often referred to as “an improved sugar plum,” Isleib explained.

“It’s become quite an industry in Canada. They’re handled similar to blueberries,” Isleib said.

Popular uses for the fruit are jams and juices. While similar to the blueberry, it has a key growing advantage.

“They don’t have the same really particular site requirements…blueberries need a very low soil pH, they need very well-drained soils, they want high organic matter in the top layer and sandy down below. They’re just really touchy. Saskatoons will do well in a real variety of soils,” Isleib said.

Next is the haskap or honeyberry, also a North American native. The flavor is described as between a blueberry and raspberry and the soil requirements are less stringent like the Saskatoon. However, the haskap has one major advantage that could tempt farmers.

“The key thing about the haskap is when it matures it matures early in June, so these berries would be ready for harvest and marking and processing before other fruit crops are ready,” Isleib said.

Like the other varieties being researched, the goji berry is also tolerant of diverse soil types and hardy. The berry is popular in China, where its tomato-like flavor is said to come with health benefits and have medicinal properties.

Unfortunately, the fruit is very delicate, but dried varieties are popular in cereals and granola.

The last berry under inspection is the aronia, also known as the black chokeberry. Another North American native current markets are Russia and Europe where the berry is popular for juices.

All four berry types were planted at multiple locations in 2015, with different varieties of each berry. The plants are being grown organically with the idea that if successful farmers would be able to sell them as part of the organic market and fill a niche there, Isleib said.

The plants appear to be doing well so far, but the official results of plant performance have not come in yet.

“It takes five years for the plants to get established and up to full production, and we’re not there yet,” Isleib said.