Prairie farmers tend to think more of introduced crop varieties when it comes to their crop choices and land-use potential, says GreenTree Agro-Forestry Solutions owner Bill Schroeder, and sometimes these introduced varieties underproduce because they are simply not adapted to the northern plains environment and climate.
This, while many native species with great nutritional qualities often seem to be under-appreciated.
Schroeder retired last year from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Agro-Forestry Development Centre in Indian Head, where he spent decades researching several species of wild berry, and attempting to help tap into their greater food market potential by selectively breeding several types of cultivars intended for more widespread agricultural usage.
His main areas of interest were chokecherries, nanny berries, buffalo berries and seabuckthorn.
It was seabuckthorn which originally spurred Schroeder’s interest in this research, and he did more than any other single researcher in North America to advance its cause with commercial growers.
“Seabuckthorn has long history of being grown in Eastern Europe, China, northern India; as well as Germany and some of those areas,” explains Schroeder. “It has been used for centuries for a nutritional fruit which became part of their diets. No one in Canada really understood its food value.
“When I was doing some seed-collecting near the Altai mountains of Siberia in 1985, I came across a huge field of agriculturally produced seabuckthorn. It must have 200 to 300 hectares in size. That’s how I got interested in it, and the first thing which attracted me to it was the odor. There was a very strange odor of the fruit as it was maturing, this was in October. So I was intrigued by the odor and then I started to taste it.”
Schroeder describes that taste as “sour-sweet and pineapplely,” and its unusually bright orange-red clusters of berries as “corncob-like,” but it was the nutritional benefits which really struck home when he began to research it.
“It was obvious to me this was a very unique fruit with some nutritional characteristics that we just didn’t see in fruits which were being used in North America,” remembers Schroeder. “The fruit itself is very high in Vitamin C. It’s not a citric fruit, but it contains very high concentrations of Vitamin C.”
During his work at Indian Head, Schroeder produced four cultivars which were sweeter and easier to harvest than varieties found elsewhere in the world. He still feels the fruit may have a bright future in prairie agriculture even if mainstream production remains several years away.
“It is very drought tolerant, and it is a nitrogen fixing plant which can grow on poor soil,” explains Schroeder.
It also grows well in dry conditions, he adds, has few diseases or pest pressures and doesn’t require any additional irrigation. It thrives on marginal lands with low fertility soils.
“One of the things which holds it back is it is labour-intensive when it comes to harvesting,” admits Schroeder, “and our Canadian producers are more attuned to mechanized crops that are more adapted to mechanization. That being said, the commercial value of the plant is quite high and there is an (international) market demand for it which is currently not being satisfied.”
But seabuckthorn isn’t Schroeder’s only pet project of the past 30 years. One of the great disappointments of his career was he was unable to advance the cause of the humble chokecherry toward a broader marketing reality.
“In the mid-1990s we thought chokecherry was going to be the next blueberry in terms of mainstream popularity,” remembers Schroeder with a touch of wistfulness in his tone. “We were working with the Brooks Research station and we were coming up with a process for juicing it and creating a juice product made from chokecherries which was very good.
“Unfortunately, there were some hiccups which occurred in the processing. Chokecherries, like everything in the rose family, have a capacity to produce hydro-cyanic acid or cyanide. We ran into an issue where one particular type of processor had a large contract with an international company. The processing went awry and the they had an issue with hydro-cyanic acid levels, and that basically killed that particular project.”
Schroeder feels the researchers of the future must revisit this particular plant’s juicing potential again when processes and technologies improve.
“If you follow the proper processing protocols that acid is not a problem at all,” he says. “There is still an opportunity for a profitable orchard-type system based around chokecherry juicing.”
While his advocacy of the chokecherry is passionate, Schroeder has decided to abandon the cause in “retired” life. What stokes his research fires today is another native superfruit variety: Buffalo berry.
His new company GreenTree Agro-Forestry Solutions is built around Schroeder’s absolute belief in this variety’s off-the-chart nutritional potential.
“The reason we are so excited about the plant is it is a true North American superfruit,” says Schroeder. “It is native to the prairies. You find it in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and the northern great plains of the United States. It also has a strong history with plain First Nations culture.
“There are number of potential product streams (puree, juicing, powder, oils from the seed) coming from the buffalo berry,” adds Schroeder.
“We are just in the research and development phase, but we are really excited about the opportunity. We’ll see where it goes.”
There are several factors which put buffalo berry in the rarefied “superfruit” class. Schroeder explains.
“Buffalo berry is extremely high in carotenoids, particularly one carotenoid called lycopene. We often think of tomatoes as the excellent source of lycopene in our diet, but the buffalo berry leaves it in the dust.
“The other thing which surprised me is the relatively high Vitamin C content. It also has a lot of antioxidant capacity in it, and the oils from the seed are tremendous sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6.
“It just has all these wonderful qualities and it has just sort of been sitting under our noses the entire time.”
Schroeder says his focus in private enterprise, as it was in public research, was championing native plant species for greater agricultural use in the future.
“What’s growing in our own backyard we tend to overlook, and bring in the exotic fruit from the tropics or wherever,” he says dismissively.
“Our First Nations have used these fruits for centuries and recognized their value. I think we can produce and grow more of what we need in our own backyard.”