Juneberries gain popularity with Northeast farmers
WILLSBORO, N.Y. (AP) — Like the taste of cherries, raisins and almonds? How about all in one? Try a juneberry.
After Chris Luley planted a few of the shrubs on his organic farm just to try them out, he soon found customers and local chefs clamoring for more of the purple fruit with a taste that’s been described as a combination of those flavors.
“Everyone wondered why we didn’t grow more,” said Luley, an urban forester who runs his small farm as a sideline in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. “It was clear there was a lot of market potential out there.”
Juneberry, a native North American fruit also known as shadbush, serviceberry or saskatoon, looks similar to a blueberry but actually is in the same family as apples, pears and almonds. Touted by nutritionists as a “super fruit” because of its high levels of antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, it has caught on in recent years as a commercial crop on the western Canadian prairie.
Now, researchers in upstate New York are making a concerted effort to expand juneberry production.
At a Cornell University farm overlooking Lake Champlain in northern New York, several wild and cultivated juneberry varieties are being grown in different soil types to see which are most suited to conditions in the Northeast.
“When people talk about juneberries in North America, we want to be the comprehensive resource,” said Michael Burgess, a botanist who leads the project.
The juneberry that grows wild in Northeastern woodlands is good to eat, but it doesn’t produce as heavily as the variety grown commercially in Canada and now in the northern United States. As the name suggests, the plant bears its fruit mostly in June.
“It’s the first fruit to flower and fruit in the springtime, even before strawberries,” Luley said. “That makes them attractive for farmers markets. Plus, they taste great.”
Luley worked with the Cornell Cooperative in 2010 to get a grant that funded the planting of 100 juneberry bushes on each of four farms, using several varieties purchased from Canadian growers. The first small crop came in last summer, and the maturing shrubs will reach full production this year.
The project resulted in a report for growers detailing the costs of establishment, characteristics of different varieties, growing conditions, potential pests, suitability for Northeastern farms and consumer appeal. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
Juneberries can be eaten fresh or used much like blueberries in jams, jellies, pies and muffins. One chef even incorporated the fruit’s unique flavor into a barbecue sauce.
Juneberries are less fussy about soil type than blueberries, which require acidic soils, said the Cooperative Extension’s Jim Ochterski. They’re also very tolerant to the cold and require less pesticide spraying than apples and grapes, he said.
Farms involved in the study have since planted many more juneberries, Ochterski said.
“Here’s a great new fruit that’s perfectly adapted to our region, that hasn’t been grown on a large scale, and has interest from chefs,” Luley said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to have a thriving production here in the Northeast.”