The Fruit Industry in Saskatchewan
The Saskatchewan fruit industry is a vibrant component of the provincial economy. Fruit crops are sold directly at farm sites, at local farmer's markets, as frozen packaged and processed products in retail groceries throughout Western Canada, and into niche export markets. Processed products include jams, jellies, pies, fruit-flavoured ice creams, gelatos, juices, teas, wines, liqueurs, health bars, packaged dried fruit, sugar-infused dried fruit, sauces and confections. One of the strong-selling features for most of the fruit species grown in the province is that they are classified as "superfruit" because they contain very high levels of health-promoting compounds.
The types of fruit grown in Saskatchewan include cultivars selected from wild native species like saskatoon berry, and domesticated fruit like apples that have been bred to withstand our harsh climate. The cultivars are often propagated via tissue culture at tree nurseries and are priced according to the volume of sale (large volume purchases get a better price per plant than smaller orders). Native fruit crops include highbush cranberry, Missouri currant, low-bush blueberry, buffaloberry, pincherry, lingonberry, chokecherry and saskatoon berry. Domesticated species include apple, dwarf sour cherry, black currant, haskap (edible honeysuckle), raspberry, strawberry, hazelnut, plum, sea buckthorn, grapes and various other marginally hardy introductions. Many of the commercially important domesticated species were bred by the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program.
Saskatoon berries lead the industry in acreage and market development. It is estimated that 1,100 acres of saskatoon berries are planted in the province. The province accounts for 28 per cent of Canada's saskatoon berry orchards and more than 34 per cent of its commercial acreage. Saskatchewan's fruit processing sector has also become successfully established in large part through the development of saskatoon berry products like jams, jellies, sauces, frozen fruit, dried fruit and teas. Its high antioxidant levels, nutrients and fibre qualify it as a superfruit.
Haskap, or edible honeysuckle, is a famous fruit in Hokkaido, Japan and Eastern Russia, but it is a new commercial fruit for Saskatchewan. This fruit is packed with nutrients that are linked to improved human health, making it well qualified to be marketed as superfruit.
Dr. Bob Bors from the University of Saskatchewan has bred many varieties of haskap. Releases like Tundra and Borealis have been eagerly anticipated by many new commercial fruit growers, making haskap production one of the fastest-growing sectors within the Saskatchewan fruit industry. The plants are extremely winter hardy and set fruit early, making it an ideal fruit for Saskatchewan.
Dwarf sour cherries are a new type of sour cherry that was first released by the Fruit Breeding and Research Program in 1999. Acreage has expanded rapidly, and now 17 per cent of Canada's sour cherry orchards are in Saskatchewan. Like saskatoons and haskap, the fruit is packed with valuable nutrients. The recently released varieties are also high in sugar content and can be eaten fresh or frozen, or used to create fruit wines and other processed products.Apples are grown in many orchards across the province. Innovative new products like apple ciders; and apple cider vinegars have been developed. Some locally grown apples have begun to be successfully offered through urban retail grocery outlets. Growers often graft the desired types of apples (scion wood) onto dwarfing rootstock so that more trees can be planted per acre, and yields can be maximized.
Strawberry and Raspberry growers are expanding production. Raspberry fruit prices have been attractive over the past few years, and better-adapted varieties have allowed for increased yield and extension of the season that growers can supply the market. Strawberry fruit production is becoming more efficient and professional; with some operations selling into retail grocers and others growing crops under high tunnels to increase production and extend the season.
The majority of strawberry acres are June-bearing types like Kent (the most popular variety), but an ever-increasing number of growers are also producing everbearing varieties like Seascape, grown in plastic mulch.
Industry Trends and Opportunities
As the provincial fruit industry grows, consumers are becoming more aware of what Saskatchewan fruit growers can offer. Healthy eating options combined with the "buy local" trend all contribute to a growing provincial industry.
There is a growing food industry trend that requires high standards of food safety from producers. Most Saskatchewan fruit growers have taken On Farm Food Safety training and are implementing the latest food safety protocols to ensure their products meet the highest standards. Consumers also want to know where their food is coming from and this trend is seen as an opportunity for fruit growers to gain more market share.
U-picks have traditionally been the major selling method and continue to be popular among fruit growers. Nevertheless, primary and secondary processing has been developed to expand market possibilities, to add value and obtain more profit. Branding Saskatchewan products has helped consumers to recognize locally grown or processed products and more sophisticated processing and marketing initiatives are anticipated.
The growing interest in agri-tourism also provides opportunities for the fruit industry, as more people are looking for ways to experience the outdoors. Demand for cultural, heritage and culinary tourism is also growing among consumers, and fruit growers are innovating to capture these opportunities.
Speaking with Fruit Growers
Key issues affecting fruit growers
Fruit growers feel the industry needs to pull together to create an identifiable Saskatchewan or prairie "brand" to facilitate marketing efforts.
Fruit growers and investors interested in expanding the industry need economic data and improved business modelling tools in order to keep the industry moving forward. Many growers are involved with Saskatchewan-based grower organizations and marketing groups and feel it is important to work together so they can efficiently offer the best products possible.
Marketing is a concern for many businesses. Concerns raised included everything from basic marketing techniques to international marketing. Some growers would like to increase production but are hesitant, as they are unsure of markets. Several growers who have expanded their acreage voiced concern over the current demand for their products.
Labour is also a concern for fruit growers. Some growers are able to make use of local youth groups and Hutterite colonies for their labour needs, but finding Canadian labourers is increasingly difficult.
Most growers see development of their own business as well as the provincial fruit industry as a key to success. Consumers are beginning to realize the benefits of Saskatchewan-grown fruit. This is increasing demand and providing opportunity for new fruit growers to enter the industry.
Many growers also noted that there may be potential to develop a cleaning, sorting, grading and packaging plant for berries at a central location within the province.