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Local grower puts in new berry crop

July 16, 2011
The Alpena News

Ever heard of saskatoons?

Don't worry if you haven't. You are among good company, even though saskatoons are an edible fruit that helped fuel the early pioneers crossing through North America. Quite similar in appearance to blueberries, this sweet nutty tasting fruit also has long been consumed by Canada's Aboriginal people.

In one of those which came first scenarios - the chicken or the egg - the berries supposedly are named for Saskatoon, a town in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan which was supposedly named after a derivative of the Cree word for the berries. At any rate, thanks to the forward-thinking efforts of local fruit grower A.J. MacArthur of Lachine, the saskatoon is in the first stages of being grown and harvested in Northeast Michigan.

Article Photos

News Photo by Diane Speer
A.J. MacArthur of Lachine examines one of his saskatoon plants that is ripe with fruit. He put in 2,000 of the plants three years ago and expects them to be up to full production in about five more years.

"I put the plants in three years ago. This is the first year with fruit," said MacArthur, who harvests four to five quarts a day for customers to sample and buy at A.J.'s, his you-pick produce farm/store on M-32. "It will take eight years before full production."

MacArthur purchased roughly 2,000 plants at $3 a piece and has planted them on two acres of land. Though he acquired the seedlings from a source in Canada which has been commercially growing the berries for the last 20 years, he also supports the Saskatoon Project Midwest, a Michigan-based effort to introduce saskatoons to Michigan growers and market them commercially.

Sarah Lutz, founder of the Saskatoon Project Midwest, said the berries are nutrionally sound.

"They are extremely high in anti-oxidants and really high in fiber, potassium, magnesium and vitamin A," Lutz said.

Another advantage for growers, she said, is that the plants are easy to grow, and once established, are considered cold hardy.

According to MacArthur, unlike blueberries, saskatoons also are a good fit for the soil found in Northeast Michigan.

"These will take the pH content of the soil here," MacArthur said. "I tried blueberries. I've tried a lot of different things. Blueberries take a more acidic soil."

Lutz agrees that the local soil lends itself well to growing saskatoons as opposed to the blueberries.

"There is the acidity issue with blueberries," Lutz said. "The pH here is more alkaline. It's the perfect alternative for non-acidic soil."

Saskatoons also are known as juneberries or serviceberries. Shrub-like in appearance, the plants are native to North America, where they range from Alaska across most of western Canada, and into the western and north central United States.

When MacArthur first acquired his seedlings, they were about the size of pencils. At maturity, the plants can grow as high as 10 feet, he said. Though he hopes to eventually add more saskatoon plants to his farm, he is waiting to gauge the public's reaction to the berries before doing so.

"The reaction has been good from people coming in the store," MacArthur said. "I don't think we've ever had anyone say they didn't like them."

MacArthur and his wife, Amy, start the you-pick season off with strawberries. Next comes the current crop of raspberries, which coincides with the saskatoons. The picking time for the new berries is relatively short at about two weeks.

While studying up on the berries, MacArthur learned that early Native Americans used them in what is called pemmican, a preparation of dried meat to which the berries were added as a flavoring and preservative.

He and Lutz both hope the berries will eventually become popular for use in jams, preservatives and ice cream.

The berries also can be used in pies, wines, cider and beer. Additionally, they can be dried for use in cereals, trail mix and snack foods.



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