Supporting superfruit development in the Northeast
Is juneberry the next “superfruit” for Northeast growers? Yes indeed, according to Drs. Michael Burgess and Michael Davis.
With funding from the farmer-led Northern New York Agricultural Development Program (NNYADP), the pair is establishing a juneberry nursery at the Cornell University Willsboro Research Farm in Willsboro, N.Y., in spring 2014. The nursery will include current cultivars and a comprehensive taxonomic sample of the genus.
The project also establishes variety trials to assist growers interested in cultivating the berry.
“I am honored to help farmers develop the economic opportunity represented by Amelanchier. The Northern New York Agricultural Development Program grant to start the Willsboro nursery allows for a controlled investigation of current and potential juneberry cultivars, and is therefore a cornerstone for developing juneberry as a nutritional and commercial superfruit,” says Burgess, a botanist at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
“It is clear to me juneberry needs to be at farmers’ markets and in grocery stores. Juneberry has a stronger nutritional profile for many nutrients than blueberries, and may be the last wild crop that has a shot at high-value commercial production in northern climates,” Burgess adds. “Juneberry fruits are perfect for pick-your-own and farmers’ market sales and have significant profitability potential with value-added products.”
Davis, manager at the Willsboro Research Farm, says, “This project is founded on a fabulous database built by Dr. Burgess and his colleagues. We will try as many varieties as possible to determine which are best adapted to northern New York conditions, with implications for growers throughout cooler climate regions.”
These Lake Champlain region grape growers assisted the 2013 harvest of the Cornell Willsboro Research Farm wine grape trial. The research team associated with the NNYA DP juneberry living genus nursery and variety trial expects regional growers to take a hands-on role with that project as well.
Photo by Kevin Lungerman.
Burgess, in conjunction with colleagues at the University of Maine, has covered over 40,000 miles to collect juneberry growing wild from Maine to North Dakota to the Blue Ridge Mountains. He is creating a taxonomic map of juneberry hot spots, noting the morphological (structural) traits and phenological characteristics (e.g., flowering as influenced by climate) that can support selective breeding.
“As we begin selection in time, one of the plant’s most exciting features is its ability to reproduce asexually, with seeds producing plants and fruit identical to the mother plants,” Davis notes.
“The reproductive biology, as well as juneberry’s ability to withstand diverse ecological conditions, is nearly a home run from a production perspective,” Burgess adds.
In spring 2014, Davis and his farm crew will plant 2-year-old commercially available plants from Canada alongside wild juneberry collected by Burgess and Davis and overwintered in cold stratification in Burgess’ Plattsburgh lab. One plot will be on light sand, another on heavier clay soil.
The research team will work with seed, cuttings, root balls and young starter plants. Micropropagation is also in the project plan.
This young foodie reaches for the ripest juneberries at one of the early-adopter plantings in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The young bush is just the right height for a pint-sized picker. Some juneberry bushes will reach heights of 9 feet at maturity.
Photo by Jim Ochterski.
They will follow production protocols suggested by the experience of Canadian growers and in resources at http://www.juneberries.org prepared by Jim Ochterski, agriculture program leader, Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.
Elsewhere in New York
Ochterski has helped more than 20 farms in New York’s Finger Lakes and central regions start juneberry plantings.
“Juneberry is not new to North America. It is just not well-known outside Canada, where plantings can reach 20 acres or more. We do not need to reinvent production techniques; we just have to adapt them to our scale. In the northeastern U.S., most juneberry plantings are just 1 to 2 acres at this point,” Ochterski notes.
Happy Goat Farm owner Chris Luley prompted Ochterski to investigate juneberry as a serious commercial crop.
Sophie Sidaway and her children, Alex and Gregory, are seen with juneberries from the early planting at Sidaway’s trial at the Pershore College of Horticulture in the UK. The trial may be the first of its kind in England.
Photo by David Sidaway.
“I see juneberry a lot in my work with municipalities and universities,” says Luley, a professional arborist. “The plants are loaded with fruit that no one knows they can eat. I was selling juneberries to local restaurants. The chefs were very interested, and nobody else was raising it locally, nor anywhere in New York that I knew of.”
Ochterski received a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) Partnership Grant to establish farm trials in 2010-2012 and to taste-test the fruit with consumers. He offered Canadian-grown juneberries to more than 1,500 visitors at Empire Farm Days.
“The results were proof positive juneberry will go over very well, particularly with consumers interested in nutrition, flavor and utility,” Ochterski states. “The berries had been quick-frozen and thawed, so [they] were not prime fresh fruit, but still, people liked them. The Empire Farm Days crowd is honest, practical, rural folks, not ones to say they like something if they don’t. For them to have enjoyed the fruit gives juneberry a lot of credibility.”
The testing produced clear demographic trends:
- Almost 100 percent of children 16 and younger were enthusiastic about the fruit.
- College-age women expressed a preference for juneberries over blueberries.
- Adult women and adults age 60 and older were influenced by the fruit’s nutritional information.
- Adult men wanted to know how to cultivate juneberry.
Luley notes, “Finding suitable varieties for a local area is important. We can see from our early work that species/variety selection is likely to make a difference, as with most fruits. And for those looking to add juneberry to a backyard landscape, the point should be made that a couple of bushes will supply a family with far more fruit than they alone can eat.”
Luley says the 102 bushes on his farm in Naples, N.Y., are “amazingly vigorous and hardy. They have withstood conditions most other crops would not have survived: late frost in May, first-year rabbit damage, incredible drought in 2012, deer pressure in spite of fencing, and some defoliation due to high moisture and leaf spot in 2013. All this early in their establishment, and they are still doing fairly well.”
In Willard, N.Y., along Seneca Lake, you’ll find Guy Lister’s Juneberry Farm.
“When I started, everyone was growing strawberries, raspberries, crops of that ilk. I wanted to grow a high-nutrition fruit, and for consumers trending toward high-nutrition fruit that tastes great, juneberry fits that niche very well,” Lister says.
Humidity is Lister’s main obstacle, creating a risk of mold and fungus. He uses spacing that’s wider than suggested in order to increase airflow among the plants.
Guy Lister is seen with some of the 500 juneberry bushes he planted as part of the 2010-2012 CCE Ontario County project to get growers interested in establishing the fruit crop. The width of his planting rows is suggested by the landscape behind him.
Photo courtesy of Juneberry Farm.
In spring 2014, he will transplant 2,000 plants that were started in pots for a year to bring his crop total to 2,500, with seven different varieties.
“Raising them in pots to better provide nutrients and monitor them helped avoid deer damage and let them gain some size before they go into the field,” he explains.
Lister expects to initially offer you-pick and then try value-added processing. Juneberry will comprise 70 percent of his commercial enterprise.
“Right now it is all experimenting. Every bit of production data we can get from the northern New York nursery will be helpful,” he adds.
Wholesaler, retailer, processor like juneberry already
In Lebanon, Conn., Mark Sellew operates Prides Corner Farm, one of the largest nursery wholesalers in the Northeast with more than 2,200 plant varieties.
“We grow Amelanchier from seed and sell 2 to 3-gallon containers as the most practical size for our landscaping services and upscale garden center buyers,” Sellew says.
Sellew was introduced to the edible Amelanchier alnifolia by fellow Cornell alumnus Jim Sollecito, who also purchases the most juneberry plants from Sellew.
“Juneberry was all new to me four years ago. I knew about the ornamental varieties, then learned the Amelanchier genetics that make for a sweet-tasting berry. My target now for education is landscapers who do not know about edible juneberry,” Sellew says.
Sollecito says his 6-acre landscaping nursery and retail site in Syracuse is the only garden center selling A. alnifolia in central New York. He gives potential landscape customers a small jar of juneberry jam and has never sold less than 100 juneberry plants a year. With public education, he expects to sell more.
“People overlook Amelanchier. They need to know it is one of the first white-flowering large shrubs in the spring, has a delightful fruit and reliable fall color. Once they taste the juneberry jam, they appreciate the plant,” Sollecito says.
Noreen Whitney of Nordic Farms Jams and Jellies in Branchport, N.Y., does not list juneberry among the 140 kinds of jam she offers online and at farmers’ markets, because Sollecito buys all the juneberry jam she can make.
Whitney used frozen berries from Michigan for her first batch at Ochterski’s request to supply workshop attendees a taste of the fruit.
“Because Sollecito’s takes most of what I make now, I have offered just a few 8-ounce jars at farmers’ markets and cannot keep it on the table. I would be happy to produce more if I could get the berries locally,” Whitney says. “Consumers want locally grown, and I like to credit the regional growers for the fruit I use. We need to get more people to the farmers’ markets to buy their weekly groceries. Once they know what juneberry is, they will snag it.”
Juneberry growers around the globe
Ochterski handles a consistent flow of inquiries about juneberry. He has spoken with growers throughout the Northeast, across the U.S., and in other areas of the world, including the UK, where Sophie Sidaway has an almost 1-acre plot at Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire, which may be the first juneberry orchard in England.
Sidaway established her planting in England’s maritime climate on sandy loam soil with a pH of 6 to 6.2 using biodegradable mulch, green manure, interrow pasture grasses mowed monthly to increase organic matter, and a buffer of white clover and yellow trefoil to boost soil quality.
“I am very interested to track the progress of juneberry trials in New York. I planted 3-year-old saplings from The Saskatoon Farm in Alberta, Canada,” Sidaway, an organic horticulture graduate, explains. “In 2013, I had a modest harvest, from which I took 4,000 seeds to support a larger, profitable orchard. I expect to experiment with processors to make value-added ice cream, juices and jams that may be the first juneberry products for sale in the UK.”
Back in the U.S., Ochterski says, “The NESARE grant kick-started investigation into juneberry’s marketability and profitability potential. Our back-of-the-envelope financials showing its promise helped interest growers.”
He adds, “We are now waiting as more growers plant juneberry and the first substantial commercial crops come in 2014 to 2016. We want to develop deliberately, grower by grower, over time, to meet and maintain demand with you-pick and fresh market sales, followed by value-added. For the foreseeable future, demand will be higher than supply as New York and the Northeast grow into their juneberry potential.”
Just short of the Boston city line in Dedham, Mass., Matt Shea and Lauren Peloquin will add juneberries to their 1-acre Riverdale Farms hobby garden, with aspirations of restoring the previous owner’s multiple-crop farmstand business.
“We are adopting an intensive planting format, with juneberries interspersed amongst clusters of dwarf fruit trees and vegetables. Boston residents regularly drive one to two hours to pick apples and blueberries in western Massachusetts. With our farm so proximate, and with a large elementary school across the street already creating traffic, we hope to attract customers to our you-pick juneberry orchard when after-school, Saturday soccer and other school activities wrap up,” Shea says.
“Boston is full of foodies who love anything local, organic, raw, wild and sustainable. I think Boston is a natural market for saskatoons [juneberries],” adds Shea, who also plans to market the berries to high-end Boston bakeries and restaurants.
“I am interested in plant selection, particularly after reading of imported plants that did not do well in a northern U.S. location. I will continue to draw on http://juneberries.org, and while the new Willsboro nursery may not help with initial selections for 2014, comparing our plants to those trials will be helpful in making future adjustments. A log of the Willsboro project activities would help a ton. They are the experts; Riverdale Farms would mimic them in selection, care and maintenance,” Shea says.
“Once the Associated Press story about the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program grant hit in August 2013, I began getting more questions about juneberry than any of the other crops we grow,” says Davis, who plans on-farm field days to keep growers up-to-date on the progress of the Willsboro plantings.
Juneberry Production Resources
Willsboro Juneberry Nursery Trial: http://www.nnyagdev.org/index.php/horticulture/juneberries-in-nny
Cornell Cooperative Extension Guide to Growing Juneberries in the Northeast: http://www.juneberries.org
“Growing Saskatoons: A Manual for Orchardists” (Dr. Richard St-Pierre, 1999; out of print, but available online): http://www.prairie-elements.ca/saskatoons.html
“Saskatoon Berry Production Manual” (Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development Department): http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex14362, 780-427-0391
Burgess hopes a North American growers association will develop to share knowledge and collaborate.
“With juneberry, we are presenting a potential new crop,” Davis says. “It is baffling to me why juneberry – which grows so easily in the wild and in urban parks where the people walking, and their dogs, eat the berries right off the plants – is not already grown in commercial enterprises. This project is going to change that. I believe [that] when we need help, the growers will be here.”
What is Amelanchier?
- Scientifically known as Amelanchier spp.; commonly called juneberry; belongs to the rose family, which includes apples, cherries, plums, strawberries, almonds, etc.
- Produces dark purple fruit (a pome) with tiny soft seeds, resembles blueberry in appearance, and has a high nutritional and antioxidant profile.
- Mature bushes produce 4 to 5 pounds of ripe fruit annually; can be eaten fresh, processed and frozen.
- Can reach heights of 6 to 9 feet; can be pruned; numerous samples of a compact version of the plant have been collected.
- Grows in diverse locations worldwide; native to every U.S. state except Hawaii, but is most abundant across the Great Lakes region and New England, from western Canada to the Maritimes, reaching north to the tundra region.
- Native North Americans often incorporated juneberries into a high-energy mix of meat and fruits called pemmican.
- A. alnifolia is the commercially cultivated species, grown for some 80 years on the Canadian prairies, where the crop is known as saskatoons. Commercial plantings there can reach 20 acres and are harvested mechanically.
- A. canadensis is native to the eastern U.S., where it has been cultivated primarily for ornamental use and attracting wildlife.
- “Amelanchier is comfortable in any ecological setting, from 30-foot sands to bogs and the cracks of granite outcrops,” says Dr. Michael Burgess.
- Tolerates different soil types, a wide range of pH and different stresses; susceptible to disease pressure that comes with more humid areas and to deer and bird damage.
- Northern New York is ideal for a juneberry genus collection. “In the spring, the flowers boldly accent the hedgerows of every farm in central and northern Clinton County in New York, and there are magnificent displays along the Military Turnpike reaching east-west across northern New York,” Burgess says.
Growers interested in the progress of the new nursery can follow research updates at http://www.nnyagdev.org.
Cornell Cooperative Extension and Sollecito Landscaping Nursery will host a seminar, Juneberries for the Home and Small Farm, on April 11, 2014. The seminar will be held at the nursery in Syracuse and will include an in-depth introduction to juneberry cultivation, from site selection and natural history to pest control and harvesting, with samples of juneberry products. To preregister, call 315-468-1142.
The author is a freelance writer with a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.