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Peninsula berry grower cultivates a ‘masterpiece’

A new breed

Posted: August 30, 2012 - 8:26am  |  Updated: August 30, 2012 - 11:45am
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Brian Olson talks last week about haskap berry bushes he is cultivating along with other berries at the small farm he and his wife operate off Poppy Lane.  M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
Brian Olson talks last week about haskap berry bushes he is cultivating along with other berries at the small farm he and his wife operate off Poppy Lane.

Brian Olson said he will spend the rest of his life further cultivating what he said is the country’s new “super berry” — and he is thrilled.

The berries are “hardy, the fruit’s great and I’m really excited for it because I think it can be a new commercial crop in this state that people can actually commercially grow,” he said.

The berry Olson is excited about grows from the Japanese haskap plant, and because of its resiliency, he said it will be a significant contribution in a state that is not predominately known for its crop productions.

“People will recognize it and they’ll know it and they’ll love it and there will be a lot of products out there for them to purchase,” he said.

He has cultivated a genetically unique product that he said is unlike any other berry.

“A strawberry has a strawberry taste; a raspberry has a raspberry taste; a blueberry has a blueberry taste — this berry is multi-flavored,” he said.

He said it hits all his taste buds.

“When you put it in your mouth you roll it around; you get the sweets, you get the sours, you get the tang, you get some zest,” he said.

The 57-year-old Soldotna resident and co-owner of Alaska Berries said the haskap has already been proven an Alaska hardy plant that can weather the state’s winters.

“We know it’s beyond the experimental part — it’s successful,” he said.

There are other berries grown in Alaska that are suitable for the state’s short and harsh growing season, but none, he said, rival the haskap for its health benefits.

The haskap berries trump blueberries, another “super berry,” in levels of antioxidants, phenols, Vitamin A and C, anthocyanins and bioflavinoids, he said.

And they harvest early, he said.

The heavy rains in late August often shorten growing seasons, but the berries on the haskap plant — known in its Latin name as Lonicera Caerulea, var. emphyllocalyx — are best picked in early to mid August before the rains.

An earlier harvesting also saves the berries from the swarms of wasps that plague the later-flowering berry crops, he said.

On average a one-year-old plant produces a handful of berries, he said. By year five, he said it can produce four to five pounds, and by maturity, 10 to 12 pounds.

Each plant has a 50-year life expectancy, he said, nearly doubling that of other berries he grows on his farm.

Cultivating its resiliency was simple, he said — they came that way from Japan.

The plant’s native land in Hokkaido, Japan is similar to the environment of Southcentral Alaska. He said much of the work developing his new strains was in honing the berries’ taste, size, output and ease of being plucked.

“I’m just a farmer and I was just taking the seeds from the best of the best, planting those and then seeing what kind of crops I could come up with,” he said.

Janice Chumley, a cooperative extension service IPM research technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said she has worked with Olson over the years as he grew his berry farm, and she said Olson has put a lot of effort into his haskap plants.

“I think that the breeding that he’s done — it’s a good deal,” Chumley said. “They’re lovely looking plants, they produce well, they’re winter hardy — what’s not to like?”

She also said they have innate defenses to pests, which is why Olson has not had to use pesticides on the haskap plants.

Currently Olson is working on a trademark for his new strains, and when he completes the paperwork in 2014 he said he will probably continue releasing new varieties every couple of years.

“If I live long enough there might be 10 varieties that are named, patented, trademarked that’ll be sold just like when you see plants for sale at nurseries,” he said.

As a farmer, he said this discovery will shape the rest of his life. He said it is his masterpiece.

“I’m never going to be finished,” he said. “I’m going to continue researching these plants until the day I die.”

This story was updated Aug. 30 to correct a misattribution. 

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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