Wednesday May 29, 2024

The Honeyberry Farm

Today I'm talking with Bernis at The Honeyberry Farm. You can follow along on Facebook as well. 

This is Mary Lewis at A Tiny Homestead, the podcast comprised entirely of conversations with homesteaders, cottage food producers, and crafters. If you're enjoying this podcast, please like, subscribe, share it with a friend, or leave a comment. Thank you. Today I'm talking with Bernis at the Honey Berry Farm. Good morning, Bernis. How are you? Good morning, Mary. I'm just great. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the honey berries are growing. Good. It's a beautiful day in Minnesota for growing honey berries.

Yep, we've had a week of rain and they're just loving it now that the sun's come out. Cool. So, tell me about yourself and Honey Berry Farm. Well, I grow honey berries along with my farmer husband, Jim, and we've been growing them for, well, about 14 years now. We planted our first ones in 2010 and we really like them. They are so...

tasty and good and good for you. And we also offer, once we got into honeyberries, it kind of led, it was kind of the entry, you know, the gateway fruit drug. So we then got into tart cherries and currants and a whole bunch of other cold hearty specialty berries that we didn't know about, that we found out about just because we started to grow honeyberries.

Nice. Are you up near the Canadian border? We're two hours south of the border of Minnesota with Manitoba. Okay. That's what I thought, but I wasn't sure. Okay. So how did you, how did you decide to start doing this? Well, it started in the winter of 2010 when I was looking through a garden catalog and I noticed this strange looking berry that was kind of oblong and never seen it. It's a berry like that before. Usually berries are round, you know, but this had...

kind of an irregular shape and it was bright blue, very attractive, and it was called a honey berry. So I ordered a couple and later that spring I got my first two bare root plants. They look like dead sticks. I was skeptical. I didn't think they'd grow. I had never ordered bare root plants before, but I stuck them in the ground and...

actually had 50% success. One of them did not break dormancy, but the other one did. And usually bare root plants are just fine, but once in a while there's a dent in the batch. And so I had my first honeyberry bush growing and then I went to Canada and Googled cold hardy fruit and I found out that the University of Saskatchewan was developing – they had a breeding program for something called Fast Gap and the more I read about it, I thought, wow.

I think that's what I ordered this spring. So sure enough, it's the Japanese name that they use in Canada, Hascap. Whereas down here we call it honey berry just because it's a lot easier to pronounce and it's a honeysuckle. It's the same thing. It's a honeysuckle berry, a blue edible blue honeysuckle. So that's kind of how the journey started, except there was one other key factor. I went to visit a friend.

at a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada there. And we got talking gardening and I said, I asked her, have you ever heard of these haskaps? And she says, well, my brother-in-law got some. She has some planted behind her house. You wanna go see? So I said, sure. And we went and there she had probably half a dozen bushes or more. And they were just starting to ripen. They had just started to turn blue. And I had my first taste. I've had a berry and it just, the skin was so.

tender, it just melted in my mouth and it had this interesting flavor I hadn't ever tasted before and I asked my friend, well, what do you do with them? And she said, nothing, my son eats them all off the bush. Well, that's what you first do is eat them off the bush, but they are so good for so many purposes, for jam and toppings and...

put in your pancakes and anything that you would do with a blueberry basically. Nice. So they don't taste like blueberries, right? Well, there's a much more complex flavor in most of them. But what I have to tell you is that honey berries, they need two parents. Most of them need two parents to produce fruit like apple trees. They need cross pollination. So every child, like humans, is unique.

different. You never know what a seedling is going to taste like. They have a lot of different flavors ranging from very mild, almost bland, to very strong, to put it mildly, even nasty. That's why these breeding programs do a lot of research, tasting their berries to select the ones that taste the best and grow well.

bigger ones that grow vigorously and they breed for, you know, a good size. And yeah, it's just a fascinating area of research fruit breeding that I got to learn about as well. So, okay. So what conditions did they like to grow? Because I grew up in Maine and we had wild blueberry plants all over my parents' property. And

Blueberries really like it kind of dappled sunshine and they really like acidic soil. So what do honey berries like to grow in? That was exactly what drew me to honey berries because we don't have acidic soil. So it was going to be very difficult for us to grow blueberries. Honey berries just need a, they grow best in like a 5.5 to 7.5 pH. So not in acidic soil. They can even grow.

update in half in Canada that they have very alkaline soil in some of the prairie provinces up there, but kind of in that range. And we're just at a six and a half, so we really have ideal conditions and kind of a sandy loam with heavy clay underneath soil. Once they get established, they're very drought tolerant, but like any young plant, it really needs some babying to start off with with adequate water.

And they don't do well with competition from grass and weeds. So if you keep the grass away and water them the first couple of years, then you should be just fine. OK. And how much sun do they need? Well, up here, you know, in zones two to five, they seem to do fine and, you know, actually prefer probably full sun. Well, definitely up in here in zone three, they prefer full sun.

warmer zone, six to eight, they do need some protection from that hot afternoon sun is preferable. It depends what climate zone you're in and also what varieties you're growing. Okay, because I was thinking about getting some honey berry plants and putting them in here. We're in zone 4B, I think, in Lasore, Minnesota.

I just didn't know the growing conditions for it because we have full sun all day where I want to put them. So yeah, that would be great. They should thrive there. Yeah. And I don't want to grow like an acre of them, but just a couple to see how they do would be kind of fun. Yeah. So there's a couple different categories for fresh eating. We'd recommend one that we call Aurora while the University of Saskatchewan released one called Aurora.

Aurora several years ago it's got a large oblong berry that has a very very nice kind of zingy flavor but not too zingy just a very very lovely flavor for fresh eating and you can do anything with it processing as well. If you want a large quantity of berries that are smaller you can go with something called check 17 berry blue.

it can grow up to 10 feet tall and wide and produce a lot of berries that are smaller. So they're not so good for hand picking. You want to shake them off and then make your jam and it has a stronger, more intense flavor. So those are just kind of the two kind of extremes of where you can go with these plants on the size. Oh, the Aurora gets about five feet tall and wide.

They have different, yeah, characteristics. I was going to say personalities, but yeah, characteristics. Very interesting. I didn't know they got that big. Sounds like they're huge plants. Well, that 10 footer is the largest one. But the other ones, most of them max out at five, six feet. The ones from the University of Saskatchewan have the larger berries and a little bit sweeter flavor. And then there are some later.

blooming once they bloom. Well, they're in bloom right now in northern Saskatchewan when the early bloomers are just finishing. So that will extend your season as well, depending on when they bloom. So there's that aspect to consider as well. If you want them all to ripen the same time or you want to plant different varieties that will ripen across the spectrum. Okay, so when do you harvest them?

Up here, we start around Father's Day and go through mid-July. Oh, so it's an earlier summer harvest. Yeah, the earlier ones, those would be the Russian ones from Siberia. They ripen just before the strawberries here. And then the mid-season and later ones would be in early July, early to mid July. Okay.

And of course, the further south you go, you know, in zone four, you would be a week or two earlier than us. And the further south you go, you know, some people in the south have already finished their harvest. So, yeah. So, what do you do with all the honeyberries? Me personally, we freeze a lot. Yeah, we put them on our cereal in the morning, make smoothies. We've made lime out of them. There's just so many things you can do with them.

They are a juicy berry, so if you're gonna make pie, it helps to mix them half and half with blueberries to give them a little bit more body, because they are really juicy. It's like eating jam if you make a pure honey berry pie. And the other difference between them and blueberries is for picking, since the skin of honey berries is so much softer, you just have to be a little bit more careful, like the berry juice can get all over me.

If you aren't careful, the skin will be softer like raspberries. Oh, okay. So that's one of the reasons why you don't find them widespread in the grocery stores because it's a real challenge to, to ship the fresh fruit when the skin is tender. Cause they bruise so easily, I would guess. Well, yeah, the slightest puncture and then you got berry blood all over the place. Yeah. Gets really messy.

So I prefer actually, we have a Yup'ik, we have two acres of Yup'ik and I really encourage people to come and pick their own berries, take their berries home and mess up their own kitchen, make their own jams. But we do have, we do make some jam for sale on site as well. Nice. So you grow cherries and other things too. Do you have people come and pick those as well? Oh yeah. Yeah. Anything that we grow here, we welcome.

the public to come and pick, like I said, from Father's Day through the last fruit that ripens in the summer, it would be the currants, black currants, would be in mid to late July. And yeah, so we start out with the honey berries and then move into raspberries, Juneberries, known as Saskatoons in Canada, or service berries. They're all the same thing.

Makes the best pie in the world even better than honey berry pie is the Saskatoon service berry Juneberry pie and Let's see. What else red white pink and black currants and I Think that's it for the summer fruits. Oh along with the cherries. So the cherries are in About the second week of July tart cherries now these grow on their own roots and they they do sucker so

If you're in a town lot, you want to be considerate of your neighbors because they might not appreciate the cherry suckers coming up. But you can control the suckers by mowing. And these tart cherries are so cold hardy and they just make the best pie or juice. The tart cherry juice is so good for athletes that are needing to heal some of their...

There's been studies done on that, on the health benefits. There's also been a lot of health studies done on the honeyberries, all those antioxidants. Just great berries, great for you and great boosting. Yeah, did I see that you grow aronia berries too? Yes, moving into the fall seeds, we have aronia which has an astringency that doesn't maybe

what most people would appreciate fresh eating, but we have them just about every morning on our baked oatmeal. And I put them in banana bread. Once you bake them, that astringency dissipates and you can eat the whole berry, unlike a choke cherry that has a seed. So the roni is like a really firm blueberry with a little stronger flavor. And the plants are so productive. We can get 30 pounds or more out of one bush that's 10 years old. So.

Very productive. The birds don't even eat them. The wasps would get into them. We've had a few years where the wasps liked them in the fall if it's a dry year. But very low maintenance and very attractive foliage. The leaves turn red in the fall. So that's our favorite fall berry, along with eronia, or I'm sorry, that was eronia. So along with elderberry is another fall ripening one. Grapes we have in the fall. Another one called seaberry.

sea buckthorn, orange, citrusy berries, difficult to pick because there's some thorns, but it's a very healthy once again and an interesting flavor if you have the patience to pick them. Yeah, if you don't mind getting blooded by your plants, it's a good one to have. Okay, so when you bought your first honey berry plants, did you think that this is where you would end up now? Are you kidding? I was barely...

I had a postage stamp size garden back then. I guess we had just started gardening, vegetable gardening, and then moving into getting some fruit bushes. So, you know, I had nothing prepared. I dug a hole in the middle of the lawn and stuck it in the berry bushes. Terrible place to plant them because the grass competes with them. I moved them later, but you know, you got to start somewhere. I guess my attitude is if I can grow them, anyone can grow them. And...

You just start and learn as you go along. So yeah, I had, I came back from Canada. You asked how did we get into it? So I came back from Canada and I was familiar with, you know, Saskatoon, you picks and strawberry you picks. So I said to my husband, you know, I feel like kind of like a couple hundred plants cause they were just something different. You know, I wanted, and I thought, well, how about if we just get a couple hundred? I thought we could have a, just had a little mini you pick and have enough for ourselves. And so he asked me, well, how are you going to pay for them?

And the answer just came immediately. I didn't even think about it. Just, well, I'll sell some, I said. So, so I'm kind of the, the public face of Honeybeer USA where I put up the website and, and, uh, do more of the public interface. But Jim is really the one that, uh, he was the one that had this idea to, to go big with it. And well, big for us. We're just, we're not a huge farm, but you know, we have both.

three, four acres of fruit now, but, and he's, he puts so much of the manual labor in. So it's definitely a team effort, definitely. But yeah, between the two of us, we got my first couple hundred, 120 bushes down and I'd sold, well, out of 700, I was left with 120 and I was happy. And then a month later, he says to me, well, I think you should bring some more plants down from Canada. So that's how Honeyberry USA was born.

Okay, so if you bring plants from Canada to the US, is there like a, I don't know, a tariff or a thing you have to do before you're allowed to bring them in or not? Well, first of all, there's a nursery license for selling them. And so we got set up with a nursery license. And then we got set up with our various propagators in there. And they're the ones that apply for the permits.

the border has to verify that these plants have been inspected and are safe for import into the United States. So yeah, there's a few hoops to jump through, but you just learn a step at a time. And yeah, we source from all over the place. We actually don't propagate the plants, but we have propagators all over that we try and find the best plants.

Yeah, and then distribute them. We do some growing out here as well for larger sizes. Yeah, it just, it's worked. Okay, I figured there were probably hoops to jump through.

Yeah. So you think you're going to get a couple bushes and try it out? I'm going to talk to my husband about it because he is the gardener. He, he just, he's a fanatic about plants and dirt and watering and being outside in the evenings when he's done with work, because it's how he de stresses from his job. And I, we had talked about it a year or so ago because friends of ours in Cloquet, Minnesota have, they grow honey berries.

I keep seeing her posts on Facebook about it. I was like, we should try growing honey berries. He said, what's a honey berry? And I said, it's like a blueberry, but it's not really a blueberry. It's a berry unto itself. And he said, what's involved? And I said, we get some plants and we put them in the ground and we see if they grow. That's what's involved. He says, we should think about that. But we've also been doing lots here for the last almost four years and it just got dropped. So.

I think I'm gonna chat with them about it. When he gets home. There you go, this is the year. We're shipping for another week or so and we'd love to send you some. And along with that, you might wanna consider a cherry bush or two. You don't need a lot because they're very productive. Yeah, we have a couple sweet cherry trees growing. Oh wow, we can't grow sweet cherries up here in zone three. We don't know if they're gonna do anything yet. We just put them in last year, but they did bloom.

the spring. So hopefully we'll have a couple cherries to try. Great. I don't know. We'll see what happens. The YouPick idea, I'm going to run that by him though for our tomatoes. He just put in 150 plus tomato plants over the weekend. Yes, definitely.

farmers market. But it's always too many and he doesn't have as much time this year as he did last year. Last year he didn't have a jobby job he had the summer off. So he had lots of time to play in the garden and pick things and sell them. He's not gonna have quite that much time this summer so I'm gonna tell him that he might want to let people know that if they want to come while we're here and just pick tomatoes that would be great. Hey yeah!

It's such an experience. You know, what I love about the Yup'ik is just seeing the happiness that it brings people. You know, the youngest that we've had here is 10 days old. Of course, she didn't know where she was, but she was happy out in the Berry Patch and the oldest in her 90s, you know, and anywhere in between. So it's just it's a great joy to share our farm with people, as I'm sure it would be for for you.

Yeah, we've had people come in, but they come in to buy stuff that's already picked out of our farm stand shed. And if we're home, they always chat. They always stop to chat and say how pretty the garden is and what a great thing we've done since we moved in in growing a garden again, because nothing had been grown there in like 40 years. It was a pumpkin patch 40 years ago. Oh, wow. Yeah.

so we get told stories about our place. We have a self-serve Yup'ik as well. The gates are open the evenings and self-serve way and pay. So you know, people want to come in after work and de-stress and enjoy it can do that.

Yeah, where did you live before you got the place that you live now? Were you in town?

Well, Jim grew up as a dairy farmer and then his dad passed away and they sold everything. I had worked actually overseas for several years. We met in our late 30s and everything that he owned pretty much fit in the trunk of his car and I didn't have much more.

So we started cutting from scratch and found two and a half acres in his home area here in northern Saskatchewan, northern Minnesota. I'm from Saskatchewan. And built a little log cabin with the helpful friends who were very grateful and two and a half acres and just prayed about what are we going to do with this? We wanted to do something with the land, two and a half acres. And then spent several years doing some building and building houses and stuff.

And then the housing slump 2008 hit, and we stopped building houses. And it just actually started doing some mowing lawns for some of the widows in town. You know, you just do what is put before you, and then this opportunity opened up, and we're just so grateful that it just one thing led to another, and now our land is productive, and we can share it with others.

Yeah, the reason I ask is because we've lived here almost four years now and we lived in town. Like we lived very close to our neighbors in a small town. And when we first moved here, it was so wonderful to get up and go outside and have my coffee in the morning. And it was quiet. We have three acres, our nearest neighbors a quarter mile away. And it was just amazing to me to not hear cars going by in front of our house every five seconds.

and to not hear neighbors making noise and not hear the dogs barking, you know, that kind of stuff. And after having been here, you know how you take things for granted once you've had them for a while? I stepped outside this morning and I was just, I took a minute and I was just listening to the cow that lives a quarter mile away, lowing and the rooster crowing and our chickens cackling. And I was like,

Wow, I forgot how lovely it is here in the morning. It is so good to remind ourselves to do that. In fact, for this podcast, I took a lawn chair out behind the house and I'm doing that very thing. There's a hummingbird whirling around and other birds. Can you hear the birds in the background? Oh yes. Yep, that's not a recording. Yeah, no. No, it's just been a delight to.

to chat with you Mary and reminisce over how we got where we are today and enjoy today and look forward to very season coming up here in about six weeks. Yeah, how crazy do your days get when it's time to start harvesting them? Well, you know, we just do what we can, I guess. Because the most intensive thing about the Yup'ik is to...

explain to people once they learn what a honey berry is and we show them some tips and tricks on harvesting them because if you hand pick them it's very therapeutic but it's very time consuming too so if you need to have a family to feed and you want to make a large quantity we have some we have some tricks like shaking the berries and then blowing the leaves off with a leaf blower and and just to make harvesting more and more efficient because there is a

a limited amount of therapeutic time that we can spend handpicking. So that's what we do for ourselves. We do the shake and drop. But yeah, some people just like to come out and have an hour and hand pick whatever they want to do, you know, accommodate. Well, I guarantee you that picking honey berries is probably easier than getting wild rice from the places in Minnesota where you can actually go and harvest wild rice. I've done it once. I will never do it again. Yeah, we don't have so many worms. I hear it gets wormy.

Um, it does. And you really have to think about what you're wearing because those little tiny kernels will get inside your clothes and they itch like crazy. I had no idea. Yeah, the main thing here is the berry blood. It gets purple. The kids love it. You know, they just smear their hands and they can, they don't worry about it. But yeah, you want to wear maybe something that you don't mind getting a little berry stain on it. So.

Other than that, wear a purple shirt. Yeah, there you go. Okay. Well, Bernis, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. And, uh, I'm going to go check out your website and see about maybe getting some, uh, honey berry plants, maybe. All right. And if you're ever in the neighborhood, uh, stop by and we'll have a meet you in person. All right. Thank you so much, Bernice.


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