Haskap hotbed: How the 'berry of long life' is taking root on P.E.I.
Berry has been grown successfully in Japan and Russia, where it's valued for its health benefits
Haskap berries have been called the next new superfruit and more and more acres are being planted on P.E.I. every year.
But, chances are you've never heard of them.
Mike Cassidy has planted four hectares with 10,500 haskap plants on his farm in Hampton, P.E.I.
He heard about the haskap by accident, while booking a chartered bus for a group of farm workers in Nova Scotia.
"Naturally as I'm doing up the quote I'm asking my customer 'well what type of farm do you have?'," Cassidy said.
"He mentioned haskap and quite honestly I didn't know how to spell it and I don't even know then if I knew how to say it back to my customer."
Cassidy asked his customer to repeat again what he is farming.
"He spelled it out H-A-S-K-A-P and he says 'Mike it comes from Japan. It's the berry of long life,'" Cassidy said.
"And I said 'oh my goodness, Prince Edward Island, Japanese, we're in the tour business. This is unbelievable.'"
Cassidy booked the bus, took the farm workers to Stewiacke and started to invest in haskap.
"I believe it is a crop for the future of Prince Edward Island," Cassidy said.
'Front edge of a new industry'
Don Northcott works with a company called Phytocultures, which has been doing production and haskap research on P.E.I. since 2008.
"It's a fantastic project, I believe we're on the front edge of a new industry for Prince Edward Island, eastern Canada in general," Northcott said.
"The fact that it's extremely winter hardy would fit our Prince Edward Island, east coast climate really well."
The berry has been grown successfully in Japan and Russia, where it is valued for its health benefits.
"The berries are really high in antioxidants, four times the levels you would find in high-bush blueberries and two times the levels you'd find in a low-bush blueberry," Northcott said.
Other names for haskap berries include edible honeysuckle, blue honeysuckle and honeyberry.
"They actually taste pretty good when they're nice and ripe, they're really quite a tasty berry," Northcott said.
"They're a little tart — sweet tart."
Cassidy agrees on the taste.
"It looks like a blueberry in colour but the texture is so much different than the blueberry," Cassidy said.
"It's very light, not as dense as a blueberry, it melts in your mouth."
Thousands of plants
Northcott doesn't know the exact number of acres of haskap plants across the Island, but estimates it's close to 40.
"We've sold thousands of plants here in P.E.I., some the home gardeners, and a lot of folks are just trying to crop, getting a couple hundred plants," Northcott said.
"Putting plants in the the field to see how they grow and learn a little bit about cultivation."
P.E.I. haskap berries have also made their way into some specialty products.
Deep Roots Distillery produces a haskap liqueur and Island Honey Wine Co. ferments haskap berries with honey to create a different tasting mead.
"We've had interest from pharmaceutical companies just to give access to the berries so they can extract the phyto-active compounds," Northcott said.
"We haven't approached anybody on the ice cream side of things but, from our field days, that seems to be a big deal. We put vanilla ice cream with some thawed berries on top."
Cassidy is selling his berries at VanKampen's Greenhouses in Charlottetown and at the Cavendish Tourism Mart.
They sell for $4.99 for half pint.
Cassidy is hoping to use his farm to convince more Islanders to grow the haskap.
"The investment into haskap is so much less than the investment into dairy farming, for example, potato farming," Cassidy said.
"If you had 30 to 50 acres you could be positioned very well with this haskap product."
Cassidy says farmers will need some patience while the plants mature, but the payoff could be impressive.
"Getting the haskap to market after three or four years of the plant maturing," Cassidy said.
"You would have enough berries that you could be averaging close to $25,000 gross per acre and your operating costs and your investment costs are minimal."