It can be hard to find silver linings these days, but the COVID-19 pandemic could very well have one when it comes to fruit breeding in Canada. More on that in a moment.
When I started at the University of Saskatchewan in 1999, I decided to try my best to focus on fruit that could be mechanically harvested rather than hand-picked. That led me down a whole new path that inspired me to focus on fruit like sour cherries, haskap and hazelnuts. On a smaller scale we continued breeding hand-picked crops.
Our breeding program is located in one of the coldest locations in the world where fruit is bred. We may be the coldest location where some crops, like sour cherries, are being bred. We maintain a collection of over 20 fruit crops most of which we are breeding to some extent.
In recent years we have emphasized breeding of haskap, sour cherries, hazelnuts, and apples. We have smaller breeding projects involving pears, grapes, plums, sandcherries, cherry plums, saskatoons and strawberries.
Of all the fruits I breed, haskap is one of my favourites. It’s an exciting new crop for North America that’s turning heads for its great flavour, versatility and its use in everything from wine to gravy. Our varieties taste something like blueberries mixed with raspberries.
The early-maturing varieties are the first fruit crops to ripen, even before strawberries. Late ones are ripe three weeks after strawberries.
When we started working on it, haskap was a crop that came in only at the end of June. It had small fruit that looked like the eraser on the end of a pencil. One group of varieties came from Russia and ripened early but fell off bushes too fast. The other group of varieties was Japanese and ripened late but unevenly. Breeding the two together, we’ve been able to produce varieties ripen at different times that have improved flavour and better agronomics overall.
I had the pleasure of visiting Russia and Poland last year to see some of the oldest haskap breeding programs in the world. I was proud when a very prominent Russian grower got up and told everyone that my haskap varieties — Boreal Beast, Boreal Beauty and Boreal Blizzard — were the best. It’s testimonials like that which put us on the map for the work we have done to bring fruits like this to the forefront.
Now, we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Although our breeding program has been affected as they all have, in some ways fruit is unique in terms of weathering this storm.
Potential labour shortages mean there could be higher demand from growers for fruit that can be mechanically harvested. That’s good news for the fruit I work on.
What makes fruit breeders unique is we constantly get feedback directly from growers, especially gardeners. I get phone calls and emails from them all the time telling me how much they love one of my varieties. According to federal government statistics, gardening is now the top hobby in Canada, second only to golf in the amount of money spent on a per capita basis. More Canadians garden than watch hockey.
The pandemic has resulted in a surge of interest in home gardening, as recent media coverage has shown us. This means much of what we breed is also very well-positioned for further success in the gardening arena and beyond.