In Minnesota, it's honeyberry pickin' time
BAGLEY, Minn. — If you think blueberries are the only kind of blue berry in the northwoods, think again.
Honeyberries, commonly known as "haskaps," are becoming more popular across the northern U.S. One of the region's newer pick-your-own farms is called Honeyberry USA, near Bagley.
Jim Ingvaldson and his wife, Bernis, of rural Bagley, have run Honeyberry USA for four years, a mail order nursery that has you-pick (and we-pick) honeyberries and other berry delights. The business is 25 miles north of the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca — about 90 miles from Grand Forks.
Among other crops, they have about 2,000 honeyberry bushes, ripe for the picking. Most use honeyberries for eating, ice cream toppings, smoothies and in pastries.
Haskaps ripen through early July. Then come the Saskatoon (June berries) in early July, followed by raspberries and tart cherries in mid-July.
Bernis, 53, grew up on a wheat, canola and cattle farm near Wadena, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was educated in computer science.
Jim, 50, grew up on a 50-cow dairy farm, but when the cows were sold in the late 1990s, he began looking for other opportunities, including carpentry and hiring on with a custom wheat harvester.
The two met in 2002 through mutual friends when both were visiting Arizona. They were married in 2003 and settled at Bagley. In 2005 the couple built a 16-by-32-foot cabin as a home and bought a 2.5-acre parcel of land.
Jim built houses for several years and was looking for enterprises that could get him off of ladders and closer to the soil. In November 2010, Bernis ordered two bare-root "honeyberry" plants from a mail order catalog. She was curious about the "blue-colored fruit" that was hardy to Zone 3, a rating system that indicates the plants can survive winters in the Northern Plains and into Canada.
Soon, the couple thought about making it into a business and Bernis bought some of the bushes. She eventually became a licensed nursery and sold the plants online.
Honeyberries grow bushes up 4 to 6 feet tall. The berries are about the size of a table grape. Canadians are breeding larger berries than the varieties more common in the United States.
The skin of the berries is tender and chewy, and offers an "intense" berry flavor.
"I always say it's like a 'mystery berry,'" Bernis says. "You put all your favorite fruits together and this is what you get."
Initially, the Invaldsons thought they'd keep 120 plants and have a "you-pick" operation for friends, neighbors and locals. They've since upped that 2,000 plants.
Besides the 2.5 acres of honeyberries for picking, the Ingvaldsons have added another 5 acres of fruits — aronia (a "chokeberry"), cherries, Saskatoons, currants (red, white, pink and black) elderberries and raspberries. They raise "sea berry" plants (sea buckthorn berries) for sale. The berries are commonly used as a citrus substitute in Russia.
The honeyberry plant sales have been consistent and have allowed the couple to purchase some equipment.
They've sold smaller quantities of berries for the past four years or so, but now the bushes are coming into full production.
"We probably have about 4,000 pounds (of honeyberry) out here, and the key is can we get it harvested? Can we get it stored?"
They sell most of the berries to the public. Some go to wineries. They are shooting for 15 to 17 Brix scale, which is roughly the percentage of sugar and is important to wine making.
"We hope to do a lot more of that after we have installed a large freezer box," Bernis says. Jim recently acquired and installed a 6-by-7-by-5 foot freezer that was recently adapted from an old milk delivery truck.
Bernis says prime honeyberry picking is in the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July. The price is $5 a pound for pick-your-own honeyberries and $10 a pound price for berries picked by workers. Prices for other crops vary but are doubled for the we-pick option. (Cherries are $3 per pound, pick-your-own, and twice that for picked cherries.)
Honeyberry USA is open Sundays through Fridays, but closed Saturdays.
"If I didn't rest then, I'd never rest," Jim says.
For information, go to www.honeyberryusa.com, or call (218) 331-8070. Picking at 19736 350 St., Bagley, Minn., is Sunday to Friday, from late June through July 31, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then again in September from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and evenings by appointment.