A new kind of berry has found its way into Michigan grocery stores. These dark purple fruits are called saskatoons.
This commercial cultivar of the wild juneberry is pretty common in Canada, but it hasn't been grown by farmers in the U.S. until recently. Here, the berry, also sometimes called the serviceberry, has been collected in the wild for generations.
One farmer who has started growing them in Michigan isn't quite sure how to describe the taste.
"Every time I eat them I get a different flavor," says Steve DuCheney, who grows saskatoons in the northern part of Michigan. "The other day I had somebody tell me they tasted like peach, and that was the first time I heard that one."
Others say they have a nutty flavor, like an almond. Rich Fasi of Interlochen, Mich., thinks of them as a mix between a blueberry and a cherry. "They're really sweet," he says. His wife uses them in pies.
The saskatoon plant and the fruit look like blueberry. But the shrub is actually more closely related to an apple tree.
DuCheney is a cabinet maker who started growing the berries on his three acres in 2008, to make some extra money after the economy here crashed in 2008. Now he's one of about 20 saskatoon growers in the area.
"I get tired of mowing the grass — the grass doesn't make me any money — so I thought, 'I need to plant something in the yard that's gonna help boost our income,' " he says.
DuCheney will be busy this month harvesting berries. In addition to deliveries to grocery stores even as far as away as Detroit, he opens his small farm to people who want to pick saskatoons themselves.
Most of these growers have never farmed before — one is a retired autoworker, and another is a school superintendent. And these rookie farmers are trying to build a new industry, with hopes that this berry will take off in the States.
Fasi, whose wife makes the saskatoon pies, has seen a wild variety of this plant before. But the saskatoons the farmers are now growing commercially "are bigger, they have fewer seeds," he says.
Canadian farmers first began cultivating wild saskatoons, or juneberries, more than 30 years ago. Steve Fouch, a retired Michigan State University extension agent, encountered them there about a decade ago.
Fouch started promoting the plant in northern Michigan because it is cold-hardy, and the region's soil is just right. But most farmers in the area grow cherries, and many were skeptical about this imported cultivar.
"People sit back and say 'If this is such a good idea, why wasn't this here 100 years ago?' " Fouch says. But people probably laughed when the first cherries first came to the region in the late 1800s, Fouch says.
Now that more farmers are trying their hand at growing saskatoons, people are also trying different recipes to showcase all that the berry has to offer.
DuCheney has been busy experimenting in his kitchen. He has used the berries in jams, jellies and pie fillings. "I just did a saskatoon bourbon barbecue sauce the other day, and it is really good," he says.
In fact, things are looking so good that DuCheney is considering getting out of the furniture-making business.
He says the day can't come soon enough when he puts down his woodworking tools and picks up his apron and garden shears full time.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Michigan a new berry is showing up on grocery store shelves. It's called a saskatoon. It's common in Canada but was almost unheard of in the U.S. until a few years ago. Now a group of rookie farmers in Michigan is building a new industry with hopes that the berry will take off in the states. Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports.
PETER PAYETTE: Steve DuCheney has been looking forward to this day for six years. Today he's delivering a few cases of dark purple saskatoons to a grocery store in northern Michigan.
STEVE DUCHENEY: You know, you guys just call me, you know, when you're getting low or whatever. Just give me a call and we'll make it happen.
PAYETTE: Saskatoons look a lot like a blueberry, both the plant and the fruit, even though the shrub is more closely related to an apple tree. Some people describe them as having a nutty flavor, like an almond. But DuCheney has trouble describing the taste.
DUCHENEY: Every time I eat them I get a different flavor. The other day I had somebody tell me they taste like peach, and that was the first time I heard that one.
PAYETTE: There are about 20 saskatoon growers in northern Michigan, and most had never farmed before. One is a retired autoworker, another was a school superintendent. Steve DuCheney is actually a cabinetmaker who planted saskatoons after the economy here crashed in 2008.
DUCHENEY: I thought, boy, I need to do something else to make some more money. And we have three acres of property out there. And I get tired of mowing the grass. The grass doesn't make me any money. So I thought, I need to plant something in the yard that's going to help boost our income.
PAYETTE: DuCheney will be busy this month harvesting berries. In addition to deliveries, he opens his small farm to people who want to pick saskatoons themselves. Rich Fasi's wife sent him over for berries for a pie. He thinks saskatoons taste like a cross between blueberries and cherries.
RICH FASI: They're real sweet. That's why I kind of threw cherry in there 'cause it's not exactly like a blueberry.
PAYETTE: Fasi has seen a wild variety of this plant before, what is sometimes called a Juneberry in Michigan. But he says those berries weren't like these.
FASI: These are bigger, have fewer seeds than the wild one.
PAYETTE: It was Canadian farmers who first began cultivating wild saskatoons more than 30 years ago. And it was in Canada where Steve Fouch first encountered the plant about a decade ago. Fouch is a retired Michigan State University extension agent. And he started promoting saskatoons in northern Michigan because most of the plant is cold hardy, and the soil here is just right. This part of Michigan mainly grows cherries. And Fouch says people were skeptical.
STEVE FOUCH: People sort of sit back and say, if this was such a great thing, why wasn't this here 100 years ago? You know, I tell people the same thing. The first cherry tree was planted, you know, in the late 1800s, OK, in the area, out on Old Mission Peninsula. And people probably laughed when they started talking about well, maybe this should be a commercial fruit.
PAYETTE: Now the saskatoon industry has grown to the point that a few farmers, like Steve DuCheney, can supply grocery stores. He'll even deliver fruit into suburban Detroit, about four hours South. DuCheney's also been working in the kitchen developing products with saskatoons.
DUCHENEY: Like the jams and the jellies and the pie fillings. I just did a saskatoon bourbon barbeque sauce the other day, and it is really good.
PAYETTE: In fact, things are looking so good that Steve DuCheney is considering getting out of the furniture making business. He says the day can't come soon enough when he puts down his woodworking tools and picks up his apron and garden shears full-time. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette in Interlochen, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.