Developing New Fruit Crops For The Canadian Prairies


Article by Richard G. St-Pierre, Ph.D.


This article is a revised version of the article that was originally published in 1998 in Forestry Studies XXX: 192-197, and was based on a presentation made at the following conference: Wild Berry Culture: An Exchange Of Western And Eastern Experiences. International Conference organized by the Forest Research Institute and the Institute of Horticulture, Estonian Agricultural University, Tartu, Estonia, August 10 - 13, 1998.




Most cultivars of commonly cultivated fruit species, such as the strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, plum and cherry, are not well-adapted to the climatic conditions of the Canadian prairie provinces; only a few, adequately hardy cultivars are available. Except for the strawberry and raspberry, commercial production of fruit crops on the prairies has generally not been economically feasible, although a variety of these fruits are grown in prairie gardens. However, there are a number of fruit species native to the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba that are adapted to the prairie climate, many of which have substantial horticultural potential. Some of these native fruit species include the saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia), black currant (Ribes spp.), blueberry (primarily Vaccinium myrtilloides), buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), high-bush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus), and pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica). These fruit species are found in a variety of habitats within the prairie, aspen parkland and boreal forest ecological zones of the prairie provinces and are adapted to the region's harsh winters. The warm, sunny, dry summers enhance fruit quality and help decrease the incidence of disease. The City of Saskatoon (52o07' N. Latitude, 106o40' W. Longitude) lies in the south center of the province of Saskatchewan, within Canadian plant hardiness zone 2b, and is fairly representative of the prairie climate. Here, the length of the frost-free season is 108 days. The December through February mean minimum temperature is -20.7oC and the extreme minimum is -50oC. The June through August mean maximum temperature is 23.8oC and the extreme maximum is 41oC.


Overview of Current Industry


The native fruit industry on the Canadian prairies is currently focused on the saskatoon (A. alnifolia), which has come furthest along the path of industry development. There are approximately 800 to 1,000 hectares of saskatoons in the three prairie provinces (based on a 1996 census). Generally, saskatoon fruit are marketed through U-pick operations, where the fruit are picked by the customer. The fruit also may be picked by the grower, cleaned, sometimes frozen, and then sold. A portion of the crop is processed into products such as jams, syrups, pies, or chocolates, which are either sold locally, or in specialized markets. As it currently exists, the saskatoon industry on the prairies has certain strengths and weaknesses. The industry's strong points include: a) an increasing acreage reaching production age; b) the increasing availability of better crop management information; c) an increasing number of more experienced growers; d) the availability of adequate tools for pest management; and e) an increasing consistency of yields and higher yields. The industry's weak points include: a) little or no scientifically-based information on plant response to fertilization; b) a lack of knowledge concerning the appropriate amount and timing of irrigation for saskatoons; c) a lack of knowledge concerning pruning and orchard rejuvenation; d) the requirement for the continued development of methods for pest control to guard against the development of resistance; e) the lack of information regarding effective methods of organic production; f) the requirement for continued cultivar development; g) the lack of economical harvesting, cooling, cleaning, and primary processing (freezing) systems for growers with small operations; h) a rudimentary processing/marketing infrastructure; and i) a lack of sufficient and consistent co-operation amongst growers and processors.


Essentially the industry is at a state equivalent to the eastern Canadian wild blueberry industry in the early 1950's. Grower organizations are volunteer based, there is no co-ordinating body for research and industry development, no organization to consistently collect industry information, no central marketing agency, no standards or grades for the fruit, no large scale processors, and almost no fresh or processed product is exported. Despite these difficulties, it is important to note that the prairie native fruit industry in Canada has come a long way, that progress still is being made in most aspects of industry development, and that saskatoon orchards in particular, can be economically viable.


Preserving Native Fruit Species' Genetic Diversity


In general, wild plant species including native fruit species are sources of food, medicine, ornamentals, and other products. However, deforestation,clearing of marginal land for agricultural purposes, and urban expansion have contributed to the loss of genetic diversity in many native fruit species. Fortunately, many farms on the Canadian prairies harbor cultivars of native fruit species that have been selected from local wild germplasm. Prairie rural gardens are often analogous to the so-called peasant agroecosystems found in developing countries and represent an excellent way of maintaining grassroots interest in the preservation of genetic diversity and patches of natural ecosystems. Cultivating native fruit species as crops will also help relieve the pressures of large scale harvesting from wild populations. Such an awareness and renewed interest may be critical to the long term preservation of native fruit species.


Looking To The Future


Over the next five years, the saskatoon industry is likely to show positive but slow growth, the economics of production will improve with increasing, consistent yields per acre, quality and grading standards will eventually be put into place, organic production will likely increase as organic methods of crop management are developed, and a processing/marketing infrastructure will also slowly develop. Perhaps what's needed most are more custom harvesting, cleaning, freezing, packaging and marketing services. Such services would benefit growers with small operations in particular because they would allow more extensive and more stable marketing opportunities with the consequence that growers can concentrate on growing their fruit. Some potential for the development of the chokecherry, black currant, blueberry, lingonberry, highbush cranberry, pincherry, buffaloberry, and sea buckthorn into economically viable crops exists. Production practices for black currant, blueberry and lingonberry are fairly well-established, but this is not so for the other fruit crops. However, even where production practices are well-known, processing and marketing problems exist and a lot of work and time will be required to realize the potential of these fruits.


The native fruit industry on the Canadian prairies is in its infancy. Relative to the other native fruit species, the saskatoon industry has come furthest along, but much remains to be done in the way of industry development. It is important to note that the cranberry and blueberry industries in eastern North America took the better part of this century to become well established. The pressure to diversify immediately poses a great number of difficulties. However, given the resources available for research and development of native fruits, it is not possible to progress as quickly as might be desired. Industry stakeholders with optimism, perseverance, vision, and a co-operative spirit are important to further, substantial industry progress.