Report praises ‘berry’ good business opportunity

Report praises ‘berry’ good business opportunity
Alpine berries are one berry species examined in the Ecology North report.Photo: Jean-Yves Dourin.

Berries grow wild and in small domesticated patches in much of the Northwest Territories. Now, a report from Ecology North is encouraging entrepreneurs to plant berry orchards for commercial production.

A project to determine the viability of berry farming as a business was so successful that a demonstration orchard will be planted in Yellowknife this summer.

In an effort to develop more sustainable agriculture in the NWT and find new crops for people to grow locally, Ecology North spearheaded a project to examine business and agricultural opportunities for planting berry orchards. Currently, only one berry orchard, located south of Hay River at Paradise Garden & Campground, exists in the NWT, but a study conducted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth produced evidence that good income is achievable for Northern berry farmers.

“It was motivated by trying to find more products that people could grow here locally and finding one that would make sense as far as a business case, so someone could do this as a business and sell it locally and have it be a viable business,” said Wohlgemuth.

Sponsored by the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program and supported by the Territorial Farmers Association, the project examined berry species in the Yellowknife, Dettah and N’dilo regions to determine which species could best be planted and cultivated on a larger scale than the small berry patches found in people’s backyards. Although there is limited agricultural land in supply, berries are high-value crops that require very little space for commercial production, Wohlgemuth said.

The project kicked off in late 2010 when funding was secured, and Wohlgemuth recently published a 90-page report on his findings. Surveying 117 people about what berries are locally grown and harvested, which berries would be preferred for an orchard and how people use berries, he found two berry species stood out as being the most viable from a business perspective.

Raspberries and saskatoons are commonly found in the NWT, are easy to grow and taste delicious, he said. Although saskatoons are not sold in local grocery stores, making it difficult to estimate market share, raspberries are in high demand. Only blueberries and strawberries sell more in grocery stores.

Strawberries are not a good option for budding berry farmers because of low prices they fetch and the fact that grocery stores often sell them at a loss to entice people into their shops, he said. Raspberries, on the other hand, are highly perishable, demanding a higher price (and better margins for both the store and berry farmer).

Other options Wohlgemuth examined and found may be good business opportunities include red and black currants, and the haskap berry developed at the University of Saskatchewan. He also expects sour cherries would be easy to grow in the NWT.

“Berries can produce really well here, and it’s certainly worth planting them,” he said.

Wohlgemuth said several people in the Yellowknife, Dettah and N’dilo regions have already committed to planting more berries after reading his report. People in other communities, including Trout Lake, have also expressed interest in planting commercial berry crops.

“If we can get even one or two people planting berries on a larger scale, they can run a small u-pick or make them for sale somewhere. It would be an indicator that we’ve been successful,” he said.

Wohlgemuth said berries are ideal for sustainable agriculture in the North because they don’t require much equipment, the plants are perennial and they don’t cause soil erosion.

“It’s a really good crop that way. Berries aren’t the prime staple of anybody’s diet. Maybe it was in the past, but there’s still a lot of other crops you’ll have to grow to produce the majority of people’s food locally,” Wohlgemuth said. Still, the average Canadian’s annual berry consumption is 5 kg – less than other fruit, but not insignificant.

Locally-grown berries could produce not only sustainable agriculture and new business opportunities in the North, but also reduced berry prices for Northerners.

“It’s definitely a good opportunity for a local farmer or orchard,” he said.

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