It was late summer, on one of those beautiful days when you forget for a little while that fall is creeping up on you that my wife and I drove out to Berry Ridge Orchard just north of Gibbons. The orchard overlooks the beautiful Sturgeon River valley, from which it derives its name. Wade Fossum, who runs the orchard along with family, friends, and a few seasonal employees, greeted us with such a warm welcome. It was almost as though he was expecting us. Within a few minutes, we were touring his automated berry picking facility and chatting about his family operation, and had long forgotten our desire to pick our own berries.
Before moving to the prairies, my wife and I had never even tasted saskatoon berries. We certainly had no idea that the saskatoon berry (or June berries, as they're called south of the border) industry has grown to be the second largest commercial fruit crop on the Canadian prairies. (Strawberries still clinch the number one spot). Berry Ridge Orchard has grown right along with the saskatoon berry popularity, planting their first bushes in 1993, now totaling 40 acres of berries! Berry Ridge Orchard is primarily a farm direct service that provides frozen Saskatoon berries to food processors and restaurants in the Edmonton region, but they also welcome visitors like us who wish to buy in bulk or have the more hands on U-pick experience. If you want to catch the pick-your-own season, aim for mid-July to early August. Just don’t forget your insect repellant.
Wade took us on a tour of the farm, explaining how the operation runs, from mechanical harvesting to sorting/grading, bagging, freezing, and then shipping. The mechanical harvester is an impressive machine, standing 15-20 feet tall. It's so efficient - it kind of makes picking by hand look like an incredible waste of time. It simply drives over a row of saskatoons, shaking the berries off the plant and collecting them at the base of the harvester. The collection plates channel the berries onto a conveyor belt where a couple of fan units blow out the leaves and other debris. The berries are then transferred to large plastic bins, brought in from the field, and cooled to 4◦C to preserve the fruit’s freshness. This is where the human work comes into play. Some human eyes and hands are then used on another conveyer belt system to de-stem, weigh, and bag the berries. 10 pound bags of berries are then frozen and ready for market. Berry Ridge Orchard ships between 20,000 to 40,000 pounds of berries per year. That's a lot of berries! Even still, the current demand for saskatoon berries far exceeds supply, so this industry has some exciting potential.
Fun & yummy stuff
Back at home, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labour…ok, the fruits of the farm machinery. My two-year-old son, Sammy, is going through a stage of very picky eating, but he loves his smoothies. And I mean loves! He calls them “me.” "More me? More me, please??" His current favourite is one we like to call the Peachy’toon Smoothie. (See recipe below - and check out his smoothie moustache!). Add a bit of protein powder to the mix and you'll have a fantastic healthy breakfast or an energy boost for your workout. And if you have a picky toddler like mine, throw in a carrot or some spinach! The dark purple colour of the saskatoon berries does a brilliant job of masking the greens! Or, if you're looking for something a little less healthy, there are loads of other recipes out there - pies, muffins, jams - for your enjoyment.
If you're interested in visiting Wade's farm, he'd be happy to show you around.
Berry Ridge Orchard
On a side note, did anyone hear the recent debate brewing about renaming Saskatoons to Juneberries? Check out this article. Share your thoughts below in the comments section!