If you grow Saskatoon berries, the customers will happily come
Updated: Jan 15
Saskatoon Berries have proven a valuable addition to John and Barb Rowen’s Waterford-area agricultural operation.
John and Barb Rowen’s 121 Robinson Road property near Waterford is not one you just happen upon. But their decision to embrace Saskatoon Berries provided a dream field of attraction for former prairie dwellers, who once they were planted and ready for picking, were happy to come.
“We met everyone who had ever lived in Saskatchewan,” smiled Barb. “Because they are mad for these things.”
Her husband’s decision to plant the distinctive berries was predicated by receiving a flyer in the mail, originating from High Plains, Alberta.
“Just for retirement,” John explained, whose initial planting was a 2.5-acre patch featuring 2,500 plants at a rate of 1,000 plants per acre.
There are 27 varieties of Saskatoon Berries says John, seven originals and 20 hybrids. He grows three, Smoky whose flavour reflects its name, Honeywood, which is a bit sweeter, and Northline, favoured for their berry size and comparative ease of harvest.
“And they’re in the middle of the road for flavour, which I like,” says Barb.
He subsequently planted another seven acres of Northline seedlings and three of three-year-old plants in 2009. It was seven years before they reaped a marketable level of berries off the initial planting, he says.
“We started getting berries before that, but not a full crop.”
Their farm is not a certified organic operation, but his approach eschews chemicals. Although better known as a western Canadian crop, John says Saskatoon Berries are a native plant used for centuries by Indigenous peoples. A variety of applications included bow and arrow construction because of the wood’s pliant nature, tea brewed from the leaves, and the fruit eaten either fresh or as a tasteful preserved addition to pemmican.
Western climes do extend the harvest season, colder evenings by comparison slowing down maturation, which in Ontario’s warmer temperatures can be rapid.
“Out west it’s a good two-month season,” said John, contrasting that to an accelerated two to three weeks in Norfolk County. “You can go down the rows and pick berries in the morning, and by afternoon they’re ready again.”
“The last week of June and first two of July, like clockwork,” Barb added. “It’s a busy time.”
A member of the apple family, Barb says they are extremely high in anti-oxidants, possessing a distinctively tart flavour.
“You either like them or you don’t,” says Barb. “There’s no in between.”
Berries can be eaten fresh or frozen, thawed and refrozen, without losing their shape or textural integrity. They are enjoyed on their own or in pies, jams and syrups, which can be drizzled on pancakes or waffles among other things.
“Anything you’d use any other berry in,” said Barb.
They have proven a popular base ingredient for wine, and also an ingredient for smoothies and shakes.
“All the health lovers love them,” said Barb.
They are a low-maintenance crop says John, ideally pruned every six or seven years in order to push berry production. He is, for the first time in 22 years, going to ‘heavily prune’ his first acreage.
“They had a fair amount of berries, but unfortunately it was all up at the top.”
Pests include gypsy moth caterpillars and Japanese Beetles, the latter arriving too late to affect harvest. This year also featured problematic weather which resulted in the loss of an acre to an-acre-and-a-half of blossoms.
“Whether it was the wind for the frost, we lost them all,” said John.
Rowen Farms offers a pick-your-own option and also pick berries for wholesale, having employed as many as ten pickers. Barb says the plants have a bumper crop every seven years, with three to seven pounds of berries per plant in a typical season. This year, with a diminished harvest, they emphasized the pick-your-own option and did all they sorting themselves, also offering a pick/share option in which pickers kept a share of berries picked.
Customers come from as far away as London and Toronto, many drawn by word-of-mouth.
“The demand is getting higher and higher,” says John, noting last year’s crop was sold in its entirety, while demand far outstripped this year’s diminished harvest.
“I was having to hoard them for people,” Barb explained.
Not all of their plan has come to fruition around their Saskatoon Berry plantation, its planned part-time nature as a retirement project altered by the fact John is still working. Harvest is always a busy time but the berries have provided a complementary agricultural component to their 30-head Saler cross cattle herd. The demand is there for all they can grow, and Barb would rate the experiment a definite success.
“It’s been good, fun,” she summed up. “You meet some wonderful people.”