An unusual berry should be widely available at farmers markets in northern Michigan this summer. In fact, the region has become the center of saskatoon growing in the United States.
Most people who grow saskatoons around Traverse City were not farmers until a few years ago, but the berry could have a bright future up north.
Saskatoons look almost identical to a blueberry, but they’re dark purple. The plant is actually related to an apple tree, but grower Jim Dixon says its appearance causes people to think saskatoons taste like blueberries. He thinks that's a mistake.
“If you know they’re derivatives of apples, you can taste the apple flavor,” he says. “And then because of the little bitty seeds that are in them, it gives them kind of an almond taste.”
Dixon’s has about five acres of saskatoons in Williamsburg, and that makes him one of the big players in this business. In fact, he’s the president of the Saskatoon Berry Institute of North America, the only industry organization in the U.S. to advocate for this uncommon berry.
Still, he doesn’t consider himself a real farmer, yet. He’s done enough now to know farming is hard work.
“I overestimated my physical ability,” says Dixon, who is 75. “I come out many days with a big plan but the plan starts petering out about noon.”
Dixon knows of about 20 people growing saskatoons in northern Michigan. He says just two were farmers before this berry came along. Dixon worked in automobile manufacturing. Another grower is a retired school superintendent. And Steve DuCheney is a cabinetmaker.
DuCheney’s farm is also in Williamsburg. He started thinking about agriculture when the recession hit five or six years ago.
"We’ve got three acres that I mow all the time, and the grass doesn’t make me any money,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Boy, I need to look at something I can plant in the yard here.’”
DuCheney first looked at blueberries but learned the soil in northern Michigan is not acidic enough for blueberries.
But it’s just right for saskatoons. And these berries have another big advantage, they’re cold hardy. In 2012, most fruit crops were wiped out by frost in Michigan, but some saskatoon growers held on to half a crop.
These are the reasons Steve Fouch introduced this plant to the area more than a decade ago. He’s a retired Michigan State University extension agent who had never heard of saskatoons until he saw some on a trip to Canada.
Fouch says people were skeptical at first, and the fruit was slow to catch on. A few even laughed at him.
“The first cherry tree was planted in the late 1800s in the area,” he points out. “People probably laughed when they started talking about maybe this would be a good commercial fruit.”
Now Fouch is confident a commercial industry for saskatoons is in the foreseeable future, even though there are just 40 acres planted in the area, at most. He’s even bold enough to suggest the berry might need its own festival, like the cherry.
“The saskatoons ripen just ahead of the cherries. It might work and it might not,” he says.
For this year, growers expect to have enough mature plants to steadily supply farmers markets. They might even sell fresh fruit through a local grocery chain.
On Saturday June 7th, there is a tour of Saskatoon farms in Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties.