By Jenny Neyman
“Everybody’s baby is the best-looking baby, but ours really is,” said Brian Olson, in typical proud-papa fashion.
Olson can rattle off a list of his progeny’s admirable qualities that would make any parent proud: Hardy, resilient, easygoing, productive and exceptionally healthy with ample prospects for an impressive future.
Then the list takes a turn for the less typical, clearly not referencing offspring of the human variety: fast-growing, thorn-free, easily pickable, delicious and having the potential to revolutionize the agricultural industry in Alaska.
That’s a big reputation for the little-heard-of berry Olson and his wife, Laurie, have been cultivating at their farm, Alaska Berries, on West Poppy Lane off Kalifornsky Beach Road. But from the six years Olson has been researching, propagating and growing the berry, Olson is absolutely certain every one of those qualities, and then some, are true.
“The experimental phase was 2008 and 2009,” Olson said. “By 2010 we knew we had an Alaska-
hardy, relatively disease-free and insect-free plant that was doing very well for us. And the flavor of the fruit was phenomenal. So we knew that we were on to something, that this is going to eventually surpass the blueberry in Alaska as far as a commercial crop goes. It is a super berry.”
Olson has been growing haskap berries, and recently announced his intention to trademark the genetic strains he’s developing, put them into commercial production and also sell the plants to his fellow Alaska agriculturists.
In today’s health-kick-hyped world, where “antioxidant” is as powerful a buzzword as “fresh air” used to be, “super berry” is a fitting name for the haskap. But historically, “gift berry” would be more accurate.
The variety of seedlings with which Olson has been working, from Lonicera Caerulea, var. emphyllocalyx, produce a berry bush in the honeysuckle family, with roots in the Hokkaido region of Japan. The traditional names for the plant, from the ancient Ainu peoples of Japan, roughly translate to “many presents at the end of branches.”
From the research and work he’s done with the plant, Olson sees the oblong, dark-blue-to-purple berry as, indeed, being a gift to Alaskans. The fruit is high in phenols, vitamins A and C, antioxidants, anthocyanins and bioflavinoids. Olson has looked into doctoral research indicating that some of the haskap’s health benefits surpass even those of the blueberry.
And haskaps are easier to grow than blueberries, which are notoriously difficult to domesticate in
Southcentral Alaska. Blueberries require a specific soil pH level — from 4.5 to 5 pH. When trees are cleared to make a field, soil in this area is about 5.7 to 5.8 pH, Olson said. In the Lower 48, like Montana, where the Olsons are from, farmers and gardeners can lower a soil’s pH by adding elemental sulphur. But the soil is too cold for that relatively easy fix in Alaska, making the pH problem more difficult.
“We’re successful in growing blueberries, but you have to do a lot more work,” Olson said. “With the haskaps, you can take the native soils of 5.7 to 5.8 pH and they’ll do just fine. They can tolerate a huge range of pHs. We’ve tested them from 5 to 7 and they do fine.”
The plants survive the winter unscathed and seem fairly resistant to disease and insects. The bushes grow tall, rather than widely sprawling on the ground, with flexible, thorn-free
branches, which makes picking easy. They grow quickly and start producing fruit by the second year, with production increasing from there to about 10 pounds of fruit per plant in maturity. Berries are ready to be picked in early to mid-August, before blueberries usually even start to turn blue. And the plants can live up to around 60 years. Those qualities could make the haskap a great addition to any garden, Olson said, whether for personal use or commercial.
He sees the possibilities of uses for the fruit as being as robust as the plants are. Haskaps grow to the size of grapes, are firm and smooth-skinned like blueberries, juicy like ripe strawberries, but not fragile like raspberries. When ripe they’re sweet and a bit of tart, with a long-lasting flavor that’s like a blend of blueberries,
raspberries and strawberries. “Everybody that has eaten the fruit has just ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed,’” Olson said. “The research we did before we ever got the plant got us really excited, because of what the Japanese have done with that plant for thousands of years. What they do with that thing is everything — I mean everything. They have candy, drinks, ice cream, wine, and used as dried fruit. The value-added industry in Japan is phenomenal.”
The Olsons already are the first in the United States to make commercially prepared and sold haskap jam, he said, and they’re working toward opening a winery utilizing what Olson calls “the grape of the north.”
The Olsons’ ultimate goal for the berry is to share it with the rest of Alaska by selling haskap plants. “We wanted to be able to grow and propagate plants here that we could sell to fellow Alaskans, that were proven for our area,” Olson said.
He first came across the haskap in 2006 on the Internet while doing research for new berry plants he could try on the farm.
“I was looking around to see, ‘What can we put in our field that will survive, come back, and be relatively easy to maintain,’” he said.
He found growers in Canada working with mostly Russian strains of the honeyberry, as haskaps also are called, but no one in Alaska. He ran into some brick walls trying to find a source for haskap plants, but eventually tracked down a retired plant research scientist in the Lower 48 who had traveled to Japan and brought plants back to the U.S. The scientist was curious to see how the plants would do in Alaska, so was willing to sell samples to Olson, with the caveat that he couldn’t patent, sell or clone the parent stock, but anything he produced from the seeds was his to do with what he pleased.
Olson started growing the original stock, selected the seeds from the best specimens, grew more test plants, again selected seeds from the best of those specimens, and so on.
“We take the seeds of the best ones and plant those, and then two years down the road we see what’s the best ones and take those. We’re going to continue to evaluate and continue that process,” he said.
He’s now got five years worth of test plants that are genetically distinct from the parent stock — and, really, from any other haskaps on the planet. He’s carefully tested, tended, watched and documented his seedlings, just as any doting parent would their tender new charge. Each round gets him closer to the characteristics he wants out of his Alaska-tailored super berry — hardiness, high yield, pickability and flavor, primarily, but there are others. Some berries are heart-shaped, which is endearing. Some have a little more of a blush characteristic to their skin, like grapes. The differences can be subtle, but don’t go unnoticed.
“The analogy I use is you think of it like children. If you had 30 children, each one is going to be uniquely different than the other ones. Even though they come from the same parents, they’re genetically slightly different — one might have blue eyes, another brown eyes, or whatever. It’s the same way when we do our haskaps, and we’re going to have superior-to-the-parent plants and we’re going to have inferior-to-the-parent plants,” he said.
He’s currently got more than 3,500 haskap plants in various stages of growth. Many are in the fields, some are just seedlings and others are kept in pots, ready to sub into the fields if one of the plants turns out to sprawl too much or produces fruit that’s not as tasty as others. In some cases it’s gotten to the point of spitting hairs in deciding which varieties to keep and which to cull.
“When we plant 2,000 seedlings you’re going to have 2,000 separate plants and not every one of them’s a winner. But we have winners, we have some that are exceptional plants, and those are the ones that we’re trademarking,” Olson said.
He hopes to winnow the varieties down to two, get those trademarked and get geared up for production to sell the plants to the public by 2014.
As of this summer, about 2.5 acres of the 4-acre Alaska Berries fields are now devoted to haskaps, taking up more and more space from the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, currents, gooseberries and Saskatoon the Olsons also grow. Such is Olson’s faith that the haskaps are going to live up to the potential he’s seen in the plants since he started growing the first wee little seedlings.
“It’s not a matter of if, we’ve done that. It’s not an if anymore, it’s not an experiment, it’s not, ‘Will this plant survive, will it produce quality fruit, will it have high yields?’ Been there, done that. It makes a quality product,” Olson said.
Olson hopes the value-added products he plans to make at Alaska Berries — haskap wine and jam — will make the farm sustainable to where he and Laurie can retire to a more supervisory role, just as any good little progeny would take care of its parents.
Beyond that, Olson hopes his haskaps go out and make their way in the world, too, leaving it a better, sweeter place for his fellow Alaska growers.
“In this state, agriculture is ranked down. It goes oil and gas, fishing, tourism, probably something else and then probably ag. But the potential for people to be able start up a commercial venture with this plant is there. It’s viable. And I’m not talking about putting in 160-acre farms. You could put in one or two acres,” Olson said. “It’s just a matter of getting it kick-started here. It’s going to be a winner. It’s not snake oil. This is for the long haul. It’s got the potential and possibilities.”