NEW CANADA, Maine — A St. John Valley farming family who planted thousands of haskap berry plants five years ago were convinced that a wide open market for the fruit was an opportunity for northern Maine farmers.
It turns out they were right.
This year, farm owners Gary and Linda Voisine of Fort Kent, along with their sons and business partners Ben Voisine and his wife Amy Voisine and Joe Voisine and his wife Danielle Voisine of New Canada, expect to sell approximately 15,000 pounds of the berries to a co-op to be made into a syrup. They also have a working relationship with a Fort Kent brewery that is using the berries in beer, and this year will open some of their fields to pick-your-own berries customers.
Haskap berries, which resemble pendulous blueberries and taste like a cross between a blueberry and a raspberry, are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. They are indigenous to Siberia, Japan and China and are grown on farms in Canada as well.
They thrive in cold weather and tolerate a short growing season — factors Gary Voisine said favor growing them in northern Maine.
“They’re very hardy,” he said. “You plant them once and they’re good for 30 years.
There’s not much that bothers them except the birds. The birds love them. There’s not much disease. Frost doesn’t affect them.”
“And they get to be six feet tall,” Linda Voisine said.
The Voisine family planted more than two miles of haskap berry plants on their land in New Canada in 2015, knowing that the plants would not yield harvestable berries for at least three years.
The family also owns Allagash View Farms, which is a Christmas tree operation near where they planted their berry field, as well as Voisine Brothers Logging in Wallagrass.
It was Ben Voisine who first saw the potential in adding haskap berry production to their business pursuits. He learned about the berries while visiting a tree farmer in Canada who also grew haskaps.
Convinced of the potential benefits of haskap cultivation, the Voisines joined a co-op in Clair, New Brunswick, located across the St. John River from Fort Kent.
This year the Voisines will borrow a harvester from the co-op to harvest at least 15,000 pounds of haskap berries to be taken to the co-op processing plant, made into syrup and distributed.
With 18,000 plants — which will yield about 8 pounds of berries per bush — this will still leave plenty of berries for the Voisines, who like to turn them into homemade jam and ice cream. Haskap berries can also be used in pies and muffins and as a substitute for blueberries in many recipes.
The berries are so versatile that First Mile Brewery in Fort Kent has purchased hundreds of pounds of them from the Voisines to make a haskap berry beer.
And in its latest market expansion, the Voisines are opening their berry farm to public picking at $5 per quart from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, beginning July 7.
“So many people don’t really know about the berries so we want to give the community a little taste of what the berries are like,” Linda Voisine said.
The haskap berry farm is located on New Canada Road.