All of a sudden, saskatoon picking season is upon us! If you are looking for a great mini road trip/u-pick/picnic experience, hopefully followed by pie making and eating, Prairie Berry Farm is a perfect place to check out. It is a great year for Saskatoon berries! Although according to Bob Belland, they are ripening about 2 weeks later than usual, they have had plenty of water so the berries are large and juicy.
Following, is my interview with Bob of Prairie Berry Farm, which gives an honest look into both the good and the tough parts of being a farmer in this sometimes harsh Alberta climate. As always, I come away from these interviews with a greater appreciation for the work that goes into running a farm and the resilience of farmers who deal with unpredictable weather and the various challenges that come year after year.
Laura: What is the nature of your farm and how did you get started?
Bob: Prairie Berry Farm is a seasonal fruit farm located Southeast of Sherwood Park in Strathcona County. We purchased this property in 1999, intending to retire into the country. Over the years that we had lived in the county, we watched development overtake the few small saskatoon orchards and much of the raw forest in the area. Our thinking was that a saskatoon U-pick would be a fun retirement ‘job’. Knowing that the trees would have to grow for years before we had an orchard, we planted most of the saskatoons in 2006. The sour cherries** went in in 2007 and 2009, as well as a few other experiments (black currants, goji berries, several raspberries and haskaps).
Laura: What do you want to tell people about Saskatoons/Prairie cherries? (In a brief summary: taste, health benefits, uses?)
Bob: Anyone concerned about dietary health should be eating this fruit. Saskatoons, which are slightly better than blueberries in flavonoids, also pack a huge fibre content as well. We also grow Carmine Jewel cherries**, which are the end product of almost a century of a passionate breeding undertaking. As for the taste, well we all know fresh tastes best and off the tree is as fresh as it gets. These berries are great to eat fresh (but the cherries are tart!) and are excellent for cooking. They freeze well for use during the winter. If you like jam, you have to try these combined - its the best jam I’ve ever eaten. (Laura: saskatoon-sour cherry jam sounds amazing!)
Laura: What have you learned about fruit farming in Alberta since starting Prairie Berry Farm? Anything surprising/positive/challenging/unexpected?
Bob: As any farmer will tell you, we just hope for good weather. Perennial optimists! These changing weather patterns are definitely challenging but we’ve found that these trees are amazingly resilient (except see note below about the cherry orchard sustaining such extensive damage due to this past harsh winter). We’ve had good years and bad, one crop failure due to drought in the spring - just normal farming life I think. The greatest discovery we’ve made is the people that have visited our farm. I didn’t realize how many others felt as we did about local food. The appreciation and involvement of all the friends we have made during the summers has kept us going during some tough times. Our biggest obstacle has been wildlife actually. Our farm is on the SE edge of (what used to be) Cooking Lake so moose and deer are plentiful. We tried apples a couple times but the moose just ate the trees.
**edited since this original interview happened back in May: Bob says, unfortunately "I’m no longer in the cherry business. The entire orchard has died this winter. Guess I got my wish about downsizing! So much for 15 years of growing trees - have to start over with the suckers that are in the orchard now."
Laura: What does “sustainable farming” mean to you and how do you practice it on your farm?
Bob: This is a touchy subject for me. I have a real problem with our modern food system. Somehow I don’t think its sustainable for us to be shipping apples from New Zealand when we can grow them right here. If you analyze (and include) the amount of energy used to fertilize, transport and process ‘food', you come to realize we’re eating more oil than groceries! I feel local production is the first step to sustainability. We also need to consider how we farm. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are synthetic products that natural systems have trouble processing. If we are more hands on in our growing methods, we don’t need these things. Granted, there will be imperfections in the product, but I have found that mis-shaped tomatoes, warty potatoes and callused cucumbers all taste just fine. Better than fine actually - I have trouble eating store bought food in early winter! Doesn’t taste right. We simply don’t use that stuff out here. All organic waste is composted and that's our fertilizer source. And we simply accept and try to minimize losses and damage.
Laura: What tips do you have for people in order to have the best u-pick experience at your farm?
Bob: Tip Number One: Dress appropriately. This is a farm so shoes or boots are advised. Sandals are not going to be comfortable for long. The berry season runs during mosquito season too so make sure you are prepared for the bugs. I would also suggest to allow lots of time. Many, if not most, visitors find they spend longer out here than they thought they might. We have a picnic area / campground that visitors are welcome to use (so bring lunch!) and a trail network that winds its way through the ‘north 40’ - our natural woodland reserve. All our guests are both welcomed and encouraged to use these facilities.
Laura: If people don’t have time/are unable to “u-pick” how can they still enjoy/arrange to buy your fruit?
Bob: We’re pretty busy during the fruit season so we understand what it means to be short of time. We now have a saskatoon harvester and can offer pre-picked fruit. You still have to come out to the farm though as we don’t have any vendors off farm, at least not yet…. We’re open every day during the season so its not hard to connect at some point (if you have transportation).
Laura: I like to ask people how they incorporate rest/rejuvenation into their busy summers especially as farmers. How do you make time to rest? If you were to be a “tourist in your own backyard” in the Edmonton area, what do you recommend?
Bob: Somehow, since we’ve started living this life, our lifestyles have evolved to become more in tune with the seasons. Working hard all day in the summer doesn’t feel as tiring as it sounds. Maybe it's the environment but working with living things, especially seasonal crops, you move at the same pace. Go hard in the spring and summer, slow down in fall and rest in winter. We’re not much for travelling any more to be honest. That’s why our place has the quiet spaces it does.
Laura: How can people best keep up with current events and news from Prairie Berry Farm or contact you?
Bob: Keep in mind we’re seniors! We did manage to build a website www.prairieberryfarm.ca
The site is updated often during fruit season and there is a contact form there. Projected opening Saturday, July 27th for u-pick and will attempt to harvest Friday morning for pre-picked fruit if possible.
Sorry to the younger folk but we don’t Facebook or otherwise…. We can be reached by phone as well at 780-662-7669. And of course, we are proud to be members of the Local County website.
If you find yourself with a bucket of Saskatoon berries in the near future, here is our favourite saskatoon-rhubarb pie recipe on the blog that we shared last summer: "Is there anything more Albertan than Saskatoon Pie?". What's your favourite thing to do with Saskatoon berries?