Family loggers bringing new berry industry to The Valley

8 years ago

By Jessica Potila
SJVT/FHF Staff Writer.

NEW CANADA — A local logger is banking on a type of berry that grows in Siberia, Japan and China which he says will help improve a struggling St. John Valley economy.

IMG 5507 17770781Staff photo/Jessica Potila

Gary Voisine displays haskap berry blossoms at his farm in Fort Kent on Tuesday, May 31.

 

Gary Voisine, co-owner of the logging company Voisine Brothers Inc., and members of his family have planted more than two miles of haskap berry plants on their land in New Canada. Haskap berries, which resemble pendulous blueberries, are rich in nutritional content, such as vitamins and antioxidants. They thrive in cold weather and tolerate a short growing season, factors Voisine said favor growing them in northern Maine.

“They are very, very, hardy. There’s not much that bothers them except the birds. The birds love them. There’s not much disease. Frost doesn’t affect them,” he said.

The Voisine family hand-planted some of the haskap plants last fall. True to their durable nature, the plants survived the winter and are beginning to blossom.

Voisine’s business partners include his sons Ben and Joe Voisine. The family also owns Allagash View Farms, which is a Christmas tree operation, near where they planted their berry field. It was Ben Voisine who first saw the potential in adding haskap berry production to their business pursuits. He learned of the berries three years ago while visiting a tree farmer in Canada. That farmer was also growing haskaps.

Gary Voisine and his sons researched haskap berries and found a wide open market which they felt provided an undeniable opportunity for farmers in northern Maine.

“Japan and China couldn’t find enough land to plant it, so they came to Canada. From the West Coast all the way to Novia Scotia they’re planting haskap berries — and that’s just to take care of all the demands going to Japan or China,” Gary said.

He added that the berries also are increasing in popularity among North American consumers, in the form of haskap jellies, jams and wines.

Convinced of the potential benefits of haskap cultivation, the Voisines joined a co-op in Clair, New Brunswick, located across the St. John River from Fort Kent.

Guy Paillard, the director of Cooperative Forestiere Du Nord-Ouest, said that four years ago co-op members tuned in to the idea of haskap berries as a way of improving the economy in Clair. Already a purveyor of maple sugar products, the co-op was prepared to innovate.

“We were trying to find something we could do with the agricultural fields that were underdeveloped. We wanted to find something to grow in these fields to put these fields into production,” Paillard said.

The co-op hopes to build a haskap berry processing plant in the region within the next four to five years.

Owners of the proposed haskap processing plant will include investors, producers of the berries, and facility employees, according to Paillard. The co-op plans to seek funding from both the New Brunswick and Canadian government to help build the plant.

“The reason we want to process these fruits in our area is to add value to our product. If you don’t do something with your raw materials, you’ll always be at the mercy of the people who process your product,” Paillard said.

So far the co-op has attracted haskap growers in northwest New Brunswick, some along the Quebec border outside the New Brunswick province and a few in northern Maine, including the Voisines. The current growers have established 100 acres of haskap growing territory in these areas, and the co-op welcomes more.

“The more farmers we’re gonna have, the bigger we’re gonna be,” Paillard said

Gary Voisine agrees.

“What I’d like to see is (for other local farmers) to get some of this land not being used in Aroostook County and have our own factory. There is such a big demand for it.”

The co-op has enlisted the Community College of New Brunswick in Grand Falls to develop the haskap berry into three possible products — juice, syrup and liquor — any or all of which the co-op will choose as a method or methods of processing haskap berries.

Since the deciduous haskap berry plants take years to reach maturity, Voisine is hoping the plant in Clair will be built by the time his crops are ready to be processed.

“It’s not something you plant this year and have berries next year. It takes three, four, five years. We won’t have any berries this year. Next year we will have a few,” Gary Voisine said.

By year seven, the plants will reach maximum yield, according to Paillard — at nearly

eight pounds of berries per plant.

A waiting game to be sure, but the plants have a lifespan of at least 30 years.

If the factory fails to materialize by the time the Voisine plants begin sprouting in earnest, the Voisines will transport their haskap berries to St. Quentin, New Brunswick for juicing.

In the meantime, the Voisine family plans to expand their haskap berry business by planting more of the plants next spring.

“It’s a good family business. I feel it has a good future,” Gary Voisine said.

IMG 5509 17770795Staff photo/Jessica Potila

Haskap berry plants begin blossoming in Fort Kent on Tuesday, May 31.

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Gary Voisine and his family hand-planted more than two miles of haskap berries on their land in Fort Kent. Rows of the durable plant appear to be growing strong in the Northern Maine soil on Tuesday, May 31.