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Haskap berries are picking up steam in Montana

Haskap berries, which thrive in the cold, are picking up steam in Montana. The blue-colored berry has a flavor ranging from pleasant mild to very bitter. The berries are primarily harvested in Russia and Japan. 

CORVALLIS — With the growth of the cold-hardy fruit production in Canada and Northern Europe, fruit growers in Montana are starting to recognize the potential for haskap berry production, says Superintendent of Montana State University-Western Agricultural Research Center Zach Miller.

While some Montana producers, such as Tongue River Winery in Miles City, have been successfully producing haskaps for about seven years, Miller estimates there are less than 30 acres planted in the state, much of which has been planted in the past few years. Miller’s work at the MSU-Western Agricultural Research station is aimed at identifying which cultivars will work best for producers in the region by comparing about 50 different cultivars of cold hardy fruit platform at several sites across the state. The group is testing haskaps and other cold-hardy fruits such as aronia, saskatoons, currants and dwarf sour cherries.

“Fruit production is a risky business,” Miller says. “The initial costs of planting, fencing and labor are high and it will take several years until the orchard is producing profits. It’s critical that growers plant cultivars that are going to do well and fit their markets. Our research is primarily aimed at answering these questions.”

Miller says the interest in haskaps is largely driven by the growing interest in eating fresh and healthy fruits.

“Consumption of these ‘superfoods’ has skyrocketed in the last few years,” Miller says. “Haskaps are a good fit for this market and producers in the region. The fruits have three times the antioxidant potential as blueberries, but are more well-suited for most farms in Montana.” Unlike blueberries, haskaps thrive in most soil types, are more winter hardy and can withstand temperatures as low as 18 degrees after the first bloom.

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Wild populations scattered in the mountains in the western part of the state gives researchers reason to think Montana is a good place to grow the berry. Antioxidant content tends to increase with higher elevation and longer days, of which Montana has an abundance. Haskaps and other fruits could have a similar niche as huckleberries in the tourist economy and can be grown commercially, Miller says.

The small, blue berry has a variable flavor, ranging from a pleasant mild taste to sometimes very bitter. Historically, haskap berries were harvested primarily in Russia and Japan, where folklore in both regions has long attributed high nutritional and medicinal values. The University of Saskatchewan has spent nearly two decades studying the fruit, and growers in the region remain optimistic about its future.

“Haskap cultivation represents a remarkable economic opportunity for farmers and ranchers, particularly in the mountain valleys and region we’re in,” says Brian Jackson, president of Bitterroot Valley Greens LLC and Sapphire Mountain Vineyards LLC, who sold more than 7,000 plants last year and hopes his company is an example for others to look to for production. The facility includes five climate-controlled greenhouses and a 120-foot by 300-foot unheated greenhouse.

According to Miller, some estimates predict in the next five years haskap sales will reach $500 million annually in Eastern Canada alone, with commercial production also in Asia and Northern Europe.

“We think there is an opportunity to turn the Bitterroot Valley into the haskap capitol of the United States,” says Jackson.

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