Sea buckthorn is moving out of the hedgerows and into the mainstream, as new varieties and evolving technologies promise to make harvesting the nutrient-rich berry less labour intensive.
“It’s been a very difficult industry to kind of get going, a lot of the cultivars that were first planted aren’t ideal for harvesting, in fact they’re very difficult to harvest,” said Anthony Mintenko, a fruit specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
To harvest current varieties, whole sections of berry-filled branches must be cut and then frozen, so fruit can be removed without being damaged.
“Sea buckthorn has been around for more than a decade now, but it’s been a bit of a long haul and we’ve lost some of our original growers,” said Kathie Fedora, a berry producer in the Beausejour area.
But new varieties with larger berries, which are easier to remove from the branch, have been developed at Canada’s Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, Sask. and are currently part of a demonstration project in Portage la Prairie.
They should encourage more production, and eventually consumption, of a fruit dubbed a “super food.” The berry, which is native to northern China, Russia and Eurasia, has seen a slow, but steady gain in popularity in recent years, thanks in large part to celebrity health gurus who praise its nutritional punch. Along with its stunning vitamin C content — 15 times that of oranges — the berry also contains beta-Sitosterol, carotenoids, vitamin E, amino acids, omega-7, superoxide dismutase and fatty acids.
Mila Maximets grew up using the berry and its oil in Russia, but had trouble finding it after moving to Manitoba. So four years ago she founded Solberry Inc., and launched a sea buckthorn purée, followed by lip balm, moisturizer, and a herbal tea (with an energy bar in the works).
Demand for Solberry’s products is high, with nearly 40 stores and restaurants using or selling its products in Manitoba. But growth is limited by the amount of berries grown in the province, she said.
“We are still looking for growers,” said Maximets. “This year we only started marketing in the summer because we weren’t sure we would have enough berries… there’s no doubt it holds us back.”
Along with government and the Prairie Fruit Growers Association, Solberry has been working to find ways to make harvesting, separating and cleaning the berries easier.
The hope is that new varieties — with names like Prairie Sunset, Autumn Gold and Harvest Moon — can be harvested with the vacuum system. First developed in Finland, vacuum-powered harvesters can hoover up 50 kilos per hour, without pruning the plant or freezing the berries.
Demonstrations of the new harvester will take place later this month at the Indian Head facility.
“It’s like any new crop — there’s lots of challenges,” said Mintenko, adding that applies to both producing the berry and marketing it.
Until Solberry, there weren’t really established buyers for sea buckthorn in the province, he said.
“Up until now it’s pretty much been a catch-22 — people would like to grow it but they’re holding off because they want to see markets (and) markets are holding off because they’re not seeing growers planting,” said Fedora.
It’s estimated there are only between 50 and 80 acres of productive sea buckthorn planted in the province, but Fedora predicts production will increase as demand grows.
“It’s starting to happen now, and as we begin to have access to these improved varieties, the culture of sea buckthorn will start to become more mainstream,” she said.
Fedora has five acres of one of the oldest sea buckthorn varieties on her farm, but said she plans to plant new cultivars as soon as they are available.
Meanwhile, Solberry is taking Manitoba sea buckthorn across the country and overseas.
Stores in Alberta and B.C. are now carrying the company’s products, while a high-end Japanese retailer has also expressed interest in Solberry’s sea buckthorn purée.
“Things are going really well,” said Maximets. “But if we had more berries, I think we could sell even more.”