Situated on a knoll five miles west of Denzil, Saskatchewan, just south off Highway 31, is the U-Pick Saskatoon Berry Farm of Marvin and Pat DeSchryver. The DeSchryvers were mixed farmers (cattle, grain and greenhouse) who diversified 23 years ago and planted 500 saskatoon bushes. The Prairie Plant Systems, a research company from Saskatoon had developed a “tissue-cultured” saskatoon tree (each plant produced is identical to the next) and were promoting growing this native fruit. Several varieties were available and the DeSchryvers chose the “Martin,” a grandchild of Thiessen.
Why did they choose to grow this Prairie fruit? “No one was growing it around here at the time and there was a community interest in it,” said Marvin. “It took four years of care and attention before the bushes were well established and started producing. With each year they got better, probably reaching their best production after 10 years.”
Growing saskatoons is very labour intensive and the couple shares the work. They have a Kubota tractor with a cultivator to work between the rows which are spaced far enough apart that this does not disturb the roots. Weeding close to the plants is done manually and is required during the whole growing season. In the spring just as the plants start to bloom, they are sprayed with an approved insecticide as insect damage can significantly lower the production of fruit. In years of little rainfall they haul water in tanks to provide the adequate moisture needed for the saskatoon to bear well.
Do birds present a problem? “Not that much,” said Marvin, “although the robins really enjoy the berries. We have enough for us and for the birds too. We have tried the fake owl and reflectors but the cannon is the most effective. However, that was not too popular with our son who lives on the next farm.”
“Pruning is very important,” Pat said. “The diseased branches and any stems that get too thick in diameter (size of a toonie) must be cut out. That encourages the plant to send new shoots from the roots and these young branches are very productive. If they get too tall and thick they break easily when people bend them for picking.”
The operation is mainly a you-come- and-pick enterprise, but Pat will pick for an additional fee for those who are not able to. The DeSchryvers have often had their children and now grandchildren help with the picking. The berries are sold by the ice-cream pail which weighs about eight pounds. Pat offers a deal for those who really like to pick the saskatoons — you pick one pail for her and you get one pail free for yourself. The season usually starts the first week in July and continues for two or three weeks, depending on the weather.
The patch is popular with seniors as there are no hills to climb, and is visited by family groups as well. “It is so interesting to hear the stories of the seniors. We often pick along with them and listen to what they have to say,” said Marvin.
“Then we get visitors from many places. They come to see their friends and relatives who bring them to our berry patch. There was a couple from Victoria, B.C. who enjoyed picking the saskatoons which they had never eaten before,” he said.
“Some come just for a good feed. One of our regulars told me that he probably eats as many as he picks. I told him that I may have to install a scale to weigh him before and after,” Marvin laughed.
Our mothers and grandmothers knew long before the nutritionists that saskatoons were very healthy, and many would “put down” dozens of quart jars of the berries for the winter. Now science confirms what these women knew, that they are a source of vitamins and provide antioxidants equivalent that of blueberries. Saskatoons are also higher in protein, fibre, calcium, iron and potassium. No wonder we were rarely sick during our cold Prairie winters in our childhood years. Saskatoon fruit preserved with sugar and water in tightly sealed glass jars was our regular dessert during the winter months. I recall that the first picking of saskatoons which grew wild around my parents’ farm always went into a saskatoon pie.
The saskatoon berry is native to Canada and our Aboriginal people incorporated saskatoons into their diet by putting the dried berries into the pemmican they made from pounded dried buffalo meat and fat. The berries were very important to them as well.