Fruit lovers, athletes and health-wise consumers take note: The next locally grown and healthful food may come in the form of a little purple berry packing a more powerful protein-fiber-
riboflavin-iron-calcium-antioxidant punch than blueberries.
Wild juneberries once sustained Native Americans and protected European settlers from scurvy, and agricultural specialist Jim Ochterski believes the time is right for a renaissance. He is leading a Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County effort to work with local farmers, chefs and consumers to see if the fruit will take root in central New York's fields and menus.
The purple-black fruit's mild, dark cherry/raisinlike flavor carries an impressive nutritional profile: a 4 ounce (about a half cup) serving has about 100 percent of the U.S. RDA for riboflavin, 70 percent for manganese, 23 percent for iron, a significant amount of calcium and dietary fiber, a healthy dose of antioxidants and twice as much protein than the look-alike blueberry.
Although relatively unknown in the northeastern United States, Canada has more than 3,200 acres of cultivated juneberries. The saskatoons -- as juneberries are known there (and elsewhere as serviceberries, deerberries, shadbush and shadblows) -- are eaten fresh or dried and used in jams and desserts.
The concept for the New York project came from Christopher Luley, a consulting arborist and owner of Happy Goat Farms in Naples, N.Y., who began selling the fruit from his handful of bushes directly to local chefs.
"The fruit is delicious and so plentiful -- I just wondered why everyone wasn't growing them," Luley said.
Ochterski, the agriculture and natural resources issues leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension, is banking on similar enthusiasm from other growers. One selling point is the berry's wide adaptability to New York's climate.
"Unlike fruit trees and vines that are damaged by cold winters, juneberries actually require three months below freezing to produce fruit," said Ochterski. "They attract few pests or diseases, can tolerate even fine clay soils and are able to grow in a range of soil conditions, including a very wide pH range -- 4.5 to 8."
Juneberries are also a useful "bridge crop" for you-pick farms, ripening after strawberries but before raspberries, giving consumers a reason to return during that typical harvest gap, he said.
Last summer, test plots of four juneberry culivars were planted at four Finger Lakes farms as part of a pilot project funded by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, and Cornell Orchards is testing some varieties this summer. The first fruits from the 2010 plantings won't be harvested until the plants reach maturity in 2012, but Luley reports that growth in the first year was vigorous.
The project is also evaluating the consumer market for the fruit from farm stands to restaurants.
Chef Carlo Peretti, executive chef at the New York Wine and Culinary Institute, knows the fruit well.
"We have several juneberry bushes at the culinary center, and we work fast and furiously during the harvest season to process the pounds of fruit from each branch," he said. "In season, we use them in the restaurant's tasting menu -- from salads to desserts -- as well as in our cooking classes. Preserving them also works well, and we've experimented with syrups, juices, jams, fermentation and freezing."
Ochterski held a daylong seminar in March for interested growers, and an August farm tour field day is planned to introduce potential growers to the specifics of juneberry production.
"Juneberries have the potential to diversify farm income streams and provide communities with healthful, tasty and locally grown fruit," said Ochterski. "We are looking to kick-start this new crop by developing an appropriate framework for growing, marketing and consumption."
Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.