Consumers, Chefs Await Promising Juneberry Crop

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

If you’re not familiar with juneberries (also known as saskatoons), Cornell Extension educator Jim Ochterski hopes to change that.

The juneberry was featured at a recent open house where Ochterski, Extension specialist Cathy Heidenreicha and small fruits breeder Courtney Weber spoke on new small fruit crops.

Juneberries are still pretty scarce in the Northeast, though commonly grown in central Canada. They are gaining in popularity in Michigan, which is one of the few sources of nursery plants in the U.S.

But nurserymen need to ramp up their juneberry stock next spring if demand continues to rise the way Ochterski thinks it will.

“Consumers are hearing a lot more about them,” he said. “Our greatest limitation now is an undersupply of berries. We have chefs who are contacting us looking for berries, produce distributors, and consumers asking at farm markets.”

Since juneberries require three years from planting to the first harvest, Ochterski anticipates it will take until June 2013 to see the first fruits from the two dozen farms across the state that have planted juneberries as part of a Cornell program designed to encourage juneberry cultivation in New York.

The farms are mostly in the Finger Lakes region (Ontario, Wayne, Seneca, Cayuga, Oswego, Broome, Orleans and Monroe counties) because of their close proximity to the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canandaigua, N.Y., where Ochterski works.

Consumers and chefs are excited about juneberries because of their novelty and also the plethora of nutrition these small berries deliver. They’re high in iron, potassium, magnesium phosphorus, and vitamins C, B-6, A and E. Their taste is like black cherries.

Growers like them because they’re pretty easy to grow and, within two to three harvest years, they’ve paid for themselves.

“They find the plants so far have been pretty self-sufficient,” Ochterski said. “Diseases and disorders have been limited and easily controlled. We’re keeping a close eye on the plants in the ground because it’s a new crop. We’re curious about their susceptibility to diseases and pests. There are a few disorders we anticipated the plants would have and they’re all ones we know how to deal with.”

Planting juneberries can give fruit farmers a “bridge crop” between the strawberries of June and the raspberries of mid-July “to keep consumers coming back,” Ochterski said. “Every farm benefits from diversification. Juneberries are something new and can help spread out risk.”

Juneberries work well on “you-pick” operations since the fruit is very stable after harvest. Ochterski said juneberries retail for about $5 to $7 per pound. Most of the farms in the program have put in 100 to 500 bushes. A few have planted 1,000.

Guy Lister, who farms 35 acres in Ovid, said planting 500 juneberry bushes last year represents an opportunity to get in on a “super food” trend. He already has garlic planted on his farm, largely because of its healthful properties.

“Juneberries seemed like a good crop to have,” he said. “In my research, most people are growing red raspberries, black raspberries and black currants, but very few are growing juneberries.”

After learning about how high juneberries are in antioxidants, he thought it would be ideal for commercial growing and as a “you-pick” crop. He plans to plant 500 more next year.

“They’re doing very well for the most part,” Lister said. “I tried about seven different varieties. It’s really a bit of a trial-and-error for all of us. They’re used to a drier climate, so this isn’t their ideal climate.”

He has found the “Smokey” variety thrives best of all the varieties he has planted. Even though his first substantial harvest won’t be until 2014, customers are clamoring for juneberries.

“In the Finger Lakes area, there are so many restaurants around here that have had interest in using them,” Lister said.

Like many small fruits, they can be used in syrup, jam and pie filling. They may be dehydrated or frozen. But Ochterski sees an even bigger market: partnering with New York’s growing yogurt industry, which includes the nation’s top-selling brand, Chobani, along with Fage, Alpina and Muller Quaker. Since most people eat yogurt because of its healthful properties — calcium, protein and probiotics — adding another highly healthful ingredient like juneberries seems a natural fit to him.

When it comes to fruit-flavored yogurt, “everyone is tired of strawberry, peach and blueberry,” Ochterski said. “What about juneberry almond biscotti? That’s gourmet. What we don’t have now is a supply of berries. We would have to buy hundreds of tons of berries from Canada until our producers ramp up for production.”

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