Haskap at Skyview Acres

Cultivating Haskap Berries at Skyview Acres

In 2018, Nicola Jones, one of the owners of Skyview Acres, and her family relocated to the picturesque Ellison area. Originally from the UK, the family moved to Canada and settled in West Kelowna in 2006 in search of a change of pace and a different lifestyle. They wished of one day growing their own food, a dream they had nurtured for many years. Once their daughters finished school, they took the leap and settled in the vibrant Ellison community, where they worked tirelessly to transform the land into a thriving farm.

Today, Skyview Acres stands as a small acreage farm abundant with produce, crops, and animals raised naturally, responsibly, and ethically. Specializing in Haskap Berries and Pinot Gris Grapes, the farm also boasts laying chickens for eggs and operates spray-free. They are committed to reinvesting in the land, emphasizing the importance of returning nutrients naturally rather than depleting them. The family takes great pride in their crops and animals, finding joy in providing their loved ones with chemical-free, nutrient-rich food grown right in their backyard.

Nicola graciously answered our questions, sharing the farm’s journey and providing insights into the cultivation of Haskap Berries.

When was your organization founded and what is its origin story?

We lived in West Kelowna for many years and had yearned for an acreage, but with our daughters attending the local schools and participating in various afterschool activities, we put our dream on hold. Then, in 2018, this acreage came on the market on my birthday! I jokingly said to my husband, “I’d like this for my gift!” I never really dreamed that it would come true.

Historically, our families had an agricultural background, albeit in England and Wales. So, we had an idea of what we might be signing up for, but we still jumped in with both feet. Before we had unpacked our moving boxes, we were planning and assessing our options for farming. Being on a hill has its challenges: we needed a crop that would enjoy the sunshine, soil type, and available drainage, and that we could work on and harvest with some equipment for maintenance when needed.

Haskaps! We did our research and started planting just over 600 little Haskap twigs, not having actually ever tasted one first! We were drawn to Haskap berries for their great nutritional value and their resilience to weather and bugs, meaning no sprays were needed. After all, if it is safe and healthy for my family, then I’m happy to share it. Growing goodness is what we stand by.

The Haskap berry is an ancient berry originating from Japan, known as “the fruit of long life and good eyesight.” It was traditionally used in medicines, and laboratory tests have proven it has high levels of Vitamins C and A, fiber, potassium, and minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper. It also has high levels of antioxidants. The scientific claims of healing and health benefits supported by this berry are vast. I encourage those interested to search the web for more information.

There are many different varieties of Haskaps. Unlike strawberries, where all varieties taste similar, the tastes of different Haskap varieties can be very different. Our Haskaps typically ripen in early June. We harvest each bush with care, as the berries have very thin and sensitive skins that dissolve in your mouth, giving you an explosion of tasty Haskap juice. Towards the start of harvest, I check the bushes, tasting the berries to ensure they have reached their peak ripeness, so they are at their sweetest. The berries look ripe for many weeks, and some growers may harvest too soon. Daily testing is key, and the berries starting to fall from the bush indicate they are at their premium and ready.

Once they are harvested (shaken, not picked), we meticulously ensure the berries reach our customers in their prime, either through our wholesalers or at the farm gate. The harvest, sorting, and packaging process is quite labor-intensive and difficult to accomplish with machinery, although we try to minimize handling of the individual berries given their sensitive skins. The berries are harvested and packaged on the same day, whether for our fresh berry sales or our frozen berries.

How has your product or service developed/evolved over time?

We originally focused on selling the berries fresh, but as the bushes grew, it became evident that we couldn’t possibly handle all that fresh fruit. We now freeze a portion of our daily harvest to sell as frozen berries, allowing clients to enjoy them many months after harvest. We also grow raspberries and strawberries, which we sell as a frozen smoothie mix, all spray-free. In the fall, I head into the kitchen and make the most delicious Haskap jam. Most clients buy them fresh for pure berry eating, adding as a complement to salads or breakfast cereal, mixing into jams, or blending into smoothie mixes. The jams and smoothies work just as well with frozen berries, as freezing does not impact the taste in any way!

Looking to the future, what is the future of your organization as it relates to the Central Okanagan?

The future is unknown. We plan and organize our harvest each year based on past demand, knowing that we can sell all the produce while accounting for the expansion of the yield as bushes grow. So far, we have experienced good growth and good berries despite the recent weather challenges in the Okanagan that have caused struggles for other fruit producers. The berries and bushes were researched and developed in Saskatchewan, where they can handle temperatures as low as -40°C and the heat of summer. Over the past two years, we have had no frost damage, and our blossoms and harvests have expanded each year.

We also have a small block of Pinot Gris grapes and know firsthand how the weather can adversely affect a crop. The popularity of the Haskap berry has grown significantly in just the few years we have been selling it. It’s heartwarming to hear clients looking forward to the fresh berries being available and stocking up their freezers with the frozen ones to “carry them through to next year.” We feel so lucky to have been welcomed into our farming community and strive to support our neighbors as they have supported us in our growth.

What made you choose the Central Okanagan for your business?

When we emigrated from the UK, we chose the Okanagan, more specifically Kelowna, as our home. It seemed to offer everything: mountains, lakes, city amenities, and a large agricultural presence. It was the perfect place to raise a family, and now we are so fortunate to call beautiful Ellison our home and our farm. The Okanagan lifestyle also leads to a demand for healthy living and eating, and the Haskap berry is a perfect fit for people who are conscious and mindful of what they eat.

Do you have any partnerships with community organizations, post-secondary institutions, or other organizations that you’d like to share?

We are fortunate to team up again this year with another local farmer who produces farm-fresh food, sells at farmers’ markets, and provides custom food boxes to clients. Another local business is in the startup stages, and we are supporting them by supplying Haskaps and sharing marketing platforms. I also provide donations of produce to local elementary schools to support their events and have offered our berries to the Okanagan College culinary department to explore their use. One of our wholesalers sells produce to local restaurants, where our berries feature in various dishes. Educating chefs about the taste and complementary foods of Haskap berries is key to expanding their use.

Do you have anything else you would like to share about your business?

I am experimenting with Haskap-infused ice cream and possibly popsicles/freezies, but at this stage, all produce is sellable through fresh and frozen markets. Expanding into other product lines will require more bushes, increased yield, added labor, and additional dedicated production facilities and equipment. If our Pinot grapes fail again, we may replant with Haskaps, but it’s a difficult economic challenge. Currently, what we grow, we can harvest and sell in full. To explore additional products, we would need extra employees, equipment, facilities, and sales channels, along with education and knowledge of the berry to help expand demand.

We view Haskaps as the best berry for taste, nutrition, availability, and weather resilience, but awareness and understanding of its benefits need to increase. A cooperative marketing plan for growers or research into its medical benefits could help develop medical commercial channels to benefit the industry. We see other Haskap growers establishing larger operations but struggling to sell their product at a premium and dealing with labor-intensive harvesting, leading some to exit the industry after a few years. We are starting small and will expand as demand allows or as new sales channels for different product uses open up.

The berry has multiple uses, and when harvested correctly, it tastes great and has significant health benefits. However, awareness and alternative product uses are being developed ‘one berry and one client’ at a time.

If you’ve never tried a Haskap then come over to the farm and we will give you some to try for free! Haskaps are just too good not to share.

Story and pictures were submitted by Nicola Jones, Haskaps at Skyview Acres.