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Family-run orchard and U-pick operation

Prairie-hardy fruit provides the potential 
for this successful business

photos: edna manning

A visit to the Bruno Cherry Festival in 2005 inspired Paul and Jacquie Mitchell to expand their U-pick orchard to include University of Saskatchewan sour cherries and haskap berries. The delicious flavour and the hardiness of the fruit convinced them of its potential.

The Mitchells had purchased their farm, located in Eagle Hills south of Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 2004. They had both been raised in the city, but wanted their three children, Jordan, McKenna and Lyndon to grow up on the farm, and decided to try a U-pick operation.

“The light sandy loam provides good drainage and was good for growing fruit,” said Paul. Their location on a north-facing slope is also ideal for winter snow cover and some frost protection in early spring.

To amend the soil, Paul has grown clover for a green manure crop. “I’ve also experimented with landscaping pellet, which is an organic-based, slow-release form of nitrogen, made primarily from oat hulls, dried distillers grains and a mineral pack to provide micronutrients,” he said.

Paul broke eight acres of an alfalfa field and planted 20,000 strawberry plants, several rows of raspberries, and 1,500 saskatoon bushes, opening the U-pick operation in 2004.

Haskap bushes flower in early May and the blossoms can tolerate up to -7 C without damage.
Haskap bushes flower in early May and the blossoms can tolerate up to -7 C without damage. Haskap bushes flower in early May and the blossoms can tolerate up to -7 C without damage. photo: Edna Manning

In 2006 they added haskap and sour cherry bushes to the U-pick and also started a 30-acre commercial orchard in partnership with Paul’s parents, Terry and Barb Mitchell. About 17,000 haskap and 5,000 cherry bushes were planted at the orchard, which is located in a valley next to the Battle River west of Battleford.

Because little was known about the haskap at that time, Paul, along with four other growers, started Haskap Canada Inc. — a not-for-profit national organization, developed to provide information and assistance to haskap producers, plant breeders and consumers. “We’ve had interest in the fruit from as far away as Japan, but right now, as an industry, we don’t grow enough to meet local demand, let alone Canadian or North American demand,” says Paul.

The Mitchells’ commercial orchard began production in 2012 and Eagle Hill Foods is the marketing brand for their processed fruit products and frozen fruit. Products are marketed locally and also in stores in Saskatoon, North Battleford, Lloydminster, Regina, Moose Jaw, Outlook, Prince Albert and Craik.

“We are also working with a processor from Newfoundland to produce vacuum-packed dried fruit powders,” adds Jacquie.

In 2008 Jacquie became involved with lilies. Fred Fellner, an Alberta lily breeder since the 1960s, presented her with an offer.

“He presented me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. He asked if I wanted to take over his lily-breeding program along with a few other growers, and if so, he would definitely help me out.

“That July, our oldest daughter Jordan and I went out to his farm when the lilies were in full bloom. He wanted me to get started with the ones that caught my eye. Jordan has taken a keen interest in the project and did all the breeding last year. Fred is so excited to see her enthusiasm — seeing it as a continuation of his life’s work,” she says. Jacquie currently has about 4,000 lily seedlings and she and Jordan plan to continue the project.

Paul and Jacquie appreciate having their children’s help with many aspects of the business, whether it’s weeding, pruning, picking berries, or assisting customers at the U-pick, farmers’ market or trade shows.

“We value the lifestyle and the opportunity to work with our children. Developing a good work ethic is important,” said Paul.

“We also feel it’s good for the children to know where food comes from and the value of growing healthy food free from harmful pesticides,” adds Jacquie.

The Mitchells’ future plans consist of building and developing a processing facility on their farm. “This year our priority is to get some cash flow from the crops so we can begin planning,” said Paul.

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