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Growing big with haskap in Nova Scotia

November 30, 1999  By Dan Woolley

LaHave Forests of Northfield, N.S., is believed to have established North America’s largest haskap orchard in 2011, planting 25,000 seedlings on 25 acres in Lunenburg County.

LaHave Forests of Northfield, N.S., is believed to have established North America’s largest haskap orchard in 2011, planting 25,000 seedlings on 25 acres in Lunenburg County.

Haskap Central Sales of Henribourg, Sask., supplied the seedlings from its orchard and greenhouse, which propagates and sells haskap plants, also known as blue honeysuckle, across North America to growers and greenhouses.

The haskap planting on LaHave’s farm began May 18, 2011. One pollinator was planted for every three haskap to be pollinated in the orchard. As well, four hives with 120,000 bees have been established in the orchard to do the pollinating.

“Haskap honey will be quite interesting,” says Logie Cassells, LaHave’s managing director.

LaHave Forests was founded by a group of people who share a passion for sustainable forestry and agriculture. The organization’s president, Simon Fineman, is CEO of one of the United Kingdom’s leading timber companies, The Timbec Group. The group owns 600 acres on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. The operation is currently implementing sustainable forestry and agriculture on its Honeyberry Hurst Farm.

 “What we are really about [is] an agri-technology company,” says Cassells. “I farm like a gardener.”

He practises biodynamic agriculture, a form of organic farming that stresses the “holistic” aspects of food production by establishing a healthy ecosystem, and treating the whole farm as a living organism.

As such, Cassells believes a plant will be healthy if it is grown in healthy soil. He rehabilitated the soil of an old hay field for the haskap orchard using a tractor-mounted deep tillage soil renovator, which penetrated 18 inches into soil to break up the hard pan and improve orchard drainage.

He then inoculated the soil with a compost tea compound made from kelp and manure, brewing it for 24 hours to produce the desired fungi and microbes.

“To keep the whole field balanced … you want the whole field, fungi and worms, working for you, doing the engineering for you,” says Cassells, adding the compost tea helps return minerals to the soil.

A tractor, mounted with a low-pressure sprayer and tank, applied the compost tea at a cost of $200 an acre, a price point Cassells notes is below the current commercial fertilizer application rate.

The orchard spraying is repeated every 10 days. By using the compost tea, Cassells believes the Brix factor in haskap can be increased to 26, because the sweetness of the fruit is driven by the mineral content of the soil the berries are grown in. He also believes the tea can keep weeds at bay.

“Weeds tell you if you have a mineral deficiency,” he says. “Dandelions tell you if you have soil compaction and a calcium deficiency.”

Cassells also plans to mow the grass between the haskap rows to help provide the seedlings with green manure. By 2012, Cassells anticipates the orchard will be producing 25 per cent of its total expected yield. By Year 3, he expects yield to be at 66 per cent capacity and, by 2014, at 100 per cent production. By that year, he also plans to have a total of 80 acres of haskap planted plus high-value hops, grapevines and Goji berries.

Cassells has few concerns regarding pests and disease in the crop as haskap is an early fruiting berry, typically harvested around mid-June. He doesn’t expect insects to be a big problem.

Birds are another matter.

“If you are losing $2,000 in berries a year, you should bird net,” he recommends.

Cassells has installed electrified fencing around his haskap orchard to fend off four-legged predators, but he feels deer will not be a problem.

“Raccoons could clear out the orchard in a night.”

Black bears could be an issue though, according to Curtis Braaten, president of Haskap Central Sales. He suggests using black cherries in the orchard as a lure plant.

Braaten and his business partner, Carl Barber, believe haskap may have a bright future in Nova Scotia, which receives three times the precipitation that Saskatchewan does and has 80 more growing days than the Prairie province.

“[Nova Scotia] has a significant berry industry and … the infrastructure,” says Braaten.

Barber adds that most people in Saskatchewan think they are “loony” for growing and propagating berry crops, adding,
“[Nova Scotia] has the knowledge base.”

Haskap Central Sales works closely with Dr. Bob Bors’ haskap breeding program based at the University of Saskatchewan. The university has crossbred and released hybrids from Russian and Kurile Island cultivars. The Kurile Island berries are sweet, while the Russian haskap is winter-hardy.

The university recommends the Tundra hybrid for commercial growers and the Borealis hybrid for home gardeners, say Barber and Bratten.

Cassells is a firm believer in the haskap berry’s future in Nova Scotia.

“There is no slam dunk in agriculture,” he says. “But I believe this [haskap berries] could surpass blueberries.” He also feels Lunenburg County has the best soil in Canada for growing berry crops.

“In terms of micro-climate, it is fantastic with plenty of frost-free days and ample moisture,” he says.

What is haskap?
Haskap, also know as blue honeysuckle, is a deciduous shrub native to the northern hemisphere. It grows about 1.5 metres tall, produces yellowish-white flowers, which ultimately become small blue fruit. The flavour of the berries has been described as similar to that of raspberries, blueberries, black currants or saskatoon berries. If the berry is green inside, it is not yet ripe. A ripe berry has a deep purple-red interior colour.

Russia has the longest history of cultivating haskap, and products made from the berries – such as pastries, jams, juice, wine, ice cream, yogurt, sauces and candies – are very popular in Japan. It can also be used to produce wine.

Haskap adapts to a wide range of pH, between 5 and 8. It prefers high organic matter, well-drained soils, and lots of sunlight for optimum productivity. The plant is more tolerant of wet conditions than most fruit species.

Two compatible varieties are needed for cross-pollination and fruit set. Often haskap will fruit the following season after being planted, even if the berry yield is very small. By the third year of planting, one pound (0.5 kilograms) may be harvested. The plants may take five or six years to attain full size.

Average production on a good bush is about seven pounds (three kilograms).

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