We would like to establish a Saskatoon berry patch for additional farm profit with minimal labor and chemical inputs.
My husband and I own 226 acres in central Minnesota. We have 80 beef Brood cows and raise alfalfa-grass hay. We also rent pasture and hay ground. We background the calves until they are about 700 to 800 pounds. We buy corn silage from a neighboring dairy for the calves. We have not used any sustainable practices in the past. This project is our first experience with sustainability.
I have a partner in this project. She is my sister Judy Heiling. She owns and operates a 4-acre nursery. She grows and markets all of her plants. This project was actually her idea, but she did not have the funds, machinery or land needed to pursue it. She has a lot of experience with growing plants, mulching, plant diseases, bugs, grafting, marketing etc.; neither one of us could have accomplished this alone.
Our main project goal was to increase our income and decrease our labor. Our next goal was to be as sustainable as we could. We wanted something that would be all “Natural and Healthy” with very little or no chemical use. Also in this area we have a sandy loam soil with lots of rocks and sloping ground. We wanted something that would last a lot of years without tillage.
We have a Box Elder windbreak to the west and north of our building site. It’s getting so old and messy. We planted our Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) where they will be our windbreak in the future and we can eliminate the Box Elders. The Saskatoons just seemed to fit into everything we wanted; we loved the wild Saskatoons (Juneberries) as kids. We found out there were U-Picks in Canada that we visited and picked berries and asked lots of questions. Also we started looking things up on the internet and decided to apply for a grant to get things started a little faster. This was a project we had decided to do on our own, but really took off with financial help.
Saskatoons are a pome fruit like apples. We tested our soil and added lime and rotted manure as recommended by Michigan State University for pome fruits. In May 2004 we planted 648 plants of assorted varieties and sizes. It was all we could find in larger quantities in the U.S. We mulched them after we planted them and kept the soil between the rows tilled all summer. We had trouble with washouts, erosion and weeds.
In the fall of 2004 we seeded grass seed between the rows and on the remaining area that we planned to plant. We had ordered 1200 seedlings from Canada. They were smaller and cheaper, but it cost us almost $500 to ship them across the border. Since they were smaller we thought it would work better to mark out the rows and put our mulch down first.
Our plants arrived on a cold day in October of 2004. We dug depression in the mulch and planted our seedlings four feet apart in the rows. Our rows are 18 feet between them. We had gone to U-Picks in Canada and that was about what they used up there. This seemed like it worked very well.
A few of the plants had berries on this July . They take about five years to fully mature and even longer if they are damaged by deer. (We have a lot of trouble with deer damage. They pull up the newly planted plants and browse heavily on the started ones. We started a fencing project this summer.)
Until they begin producing more we really cannot measure yields or profitability. The mulching (using sawdust from a sawmill) seemed to work very well for weed control. We did some spot spraying with Roundup this summer within the rows. We plan on applying heavier mulch in the problem areas.
The grass seeding worked great – no more washouts and we cut two crops of hay from between the rows. When the Saskatoons get bigger and bush out, we may not be able to do this so we will mow it like a lawn. With the exception of the deer damage, the plants looked extremely healthy this summer. It is a lot different than growing corn or hay with all the chemicals and commercial fertilizers involved.
So far things seem to be meeting our expectations. I don’t think we would do much differently unless it would be to try and fence the area first to keep the deer out. We are working on that now as quickly as we can. Also we would recommend getting the ground cover between the rows as soon as possible, especially if you have light soil or slightly sloping land as we do. This would be a great project for areas that have poorer soil or are highly erodible. Also they would work good for areas that need a windbreak. They reach 8 to 12 foot heights. The Saskatoons have an average life of 60 to 80 years once established. With the popularity of U-Picks in this area, I think something new like this will be very profitable. The disadvantages would be the initial labor and costs of getting a patch started. It will take about five years to mature and so a return on investment will take a long time.
I think the social interest of this project is astounding!! Everyone is very curious about the “brush” or bushes we have growing behind our house here. Word of mouth has really gone around as it seems that everywhere we go people are curious about the berries. My sister and I are known as “The Saskatoon Ladies.” Judy also talks a lot about the Saskatoons when she is marketing her other plants. We are having a lot of fun with this project.
Last March 4-5th we attended the SARE conference in Sioux City, Iowa. It was a lot of fun sharing ideas and projects with the people there. [Editor’s note: The SARE conference was a multi-state program titled, Reaping the Rewards of our SARE Investment: The Multi-State Farmer Linkage Program. It was held at Briar Cliff University, Sioux City, IA. The program provided an opportunity for educators from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota to learn first hand from the farmers and ranchers about their goals for sustainable agriculture. SARE Producer Grant recipients from the five states listed and others were invited to attend the program.]
Jen Reed did an article on us for the “Greenbook 2005.” [Editor’s note: “Greenbook” is an annual publication of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program.] I think she did an excellent job.
I wish we had more financial information but won’t for a few years yet. We were invited by Jose Garcia [of the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program, University of Missouri] to speak at The National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, MO on November 4, 2005. It was our first speech but I think it went very well. We made a CD with pictures of the berries and how they looked when they were mature (from some pictures we took in Canada) when they were blooming and with fruit on. We also explained different species, different cultivators, how we did our patch and various other things. Everyone seemed very interested. We have also been invited to speak at the Midwest Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in St. Cloud, MN on February 3, 2005. I also just recently received a call from Fairmont, MN asking if we’d speak at an agriforestry conference. I have not received any information on the dates yet.
As the plants mature we will keep records on labor involved, costs, income, yields, etc. We will also continue our marketing research. In the future we will definitely have an open house. We thought maybe in early July perhaps 2007 or 2008 when there are starting to be some ripe berries so people can sample them. [Editor’s Note: A Saskatoon field day is scheduled for July 14, 2007.]
We have done a lot of research on Saskatoons from the internet and from talking to growers and nurseries in Canada. We would like to travel more extensively into Canada in the future to research them further. This is a project that was a dream of ours that we planned on doing anyway. It has just taken off so fast with the financial help from the grants – it is like a dream come true.
We think this is a great program. There are a lot of very nice, very helpful people working with it. We have really learned a lot and made a lot of new friends and are having a lot of fun.
Thanks again for all the help from everyone, all the encouragement, the interest, and of course the financial help too.