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Developing the cherry industry in Western Canada

Saskatchewan couple’s venture into growing cherries turns into establishment of on-farm processing plant

When Bruce and Charlene Hill planted 80 sour cherry shrubs on their farmyard near Imperial, Sask. in 2005, they had no idea their venture would result in the establishment of a processing plant on their farm, as well as initiate a nationwide cherry industry.

Bruce had been involved in agriculture most of his life but wanted to relax and plant some flowering fruit plants to enjoy every spring.

The cold-hardy “Carmine Jewel” variety of sour cherry was developed by the University of Saskatchewan and released by the Fruit Breeding and Research Program in 1999. “The colour, sweetness and intense flavour is significantly different, and better than other cherries,” Hill says.

In 2007 the “Romance” series with similar parentage was released. All the dwarf cherry cultivars grow between six to eight feet, which allows for over-the-row mechanical harvesters.

Bruce Hill
photo: Courtesy Bruce Hill

The Hills initially wanted to plant saskatoons, but soon realized that being native, they were prone to pests and diseases. “I wasn’t anxious to get back into pesticides and herbicides, so we switched to cherries,” Hill says.

During the spring of 2007 the Hills had cultivated 20 acres of their pasture land and planted about 5,000 cherry shrubs. A trickle irrigation system pumping water from nearby Bulrush Lake helped to get the plants established, and an eight-foot deer exclusion fence was built.

In the fall of that year, Hill and 40 other cherry growers formed Canadian Cherry Producers Inc. (CCPI), a non-profit corporation, with Hill as president. The purpose of CCPI is “to promote the industry, educate consumers and producers and encourage research.” Hill served as president for nine years and Charlene currently continues as a director. Bruce was also a director of the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers’ Association and has served nationally with the Canadian Horticulture Council.

In 2011, the Hills began development of a processing plant on the farm to sort, rinse, pit and freeze cherries. “Our primary product is dehydrated cherries. We use no additives like oil, sugar or red dye.”

In 2016, the Hills developed a “cherry jelly” with reduced added sugar. “At Hill Berry Acres, we believe strongly in working with nature to produce a safe healthy food for consumers,” Hill says.

The Hills recently tried honeybees hoping to increase pollination of cherry flowers. “The first year we extracted some 1,600 pounds of honey. But work with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) led us to believe honeybees are more attracted to nearby canola fields and dandelions than our cherry blossoms. Work with Dr. Cory Sheffield of RSM and his students is ongoing.

“Cory’s work is definitely shedding some light on pollination. We have refocused several times and believe that Mother Nature plays a major role we need to support,” Hill said.

One of the Hills’ biggest challenges is gaining knowledge of the needs of consumers. “Saskatchewan is a huge province with a low density of people. The benefit of having orchards far apart, (disease and pest reduction) is offset by great distances for markets. Canada’s food regulations assure consumers of safe food but are a huge hurdle for small producers. Saskatchewan’s marketplace is still underdeveloped.”

For more information go to www.hillberryacres.com or the Canadian Cherry Producers, Inc. www.cherryproducers.ca.

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