Thanks to a downturn in Canada’s agricultural economy two decades ago, timely government incentives, and one determined Saskatchewan couple, an age-old berry is gaining renown as a superfruit.

Married to third-generation farmer Ken Purdy, Sandra Purdy enjoyed her job with SaskTel despite the long commute between Keeler and Regina. The company had been good to her, providing valuable experience in several operational areas. It assisted with the university expenses of her two sons and also allowed her to earn post-secondary education. Purdy had dreamed of one day being able to work from the farm in a meaningful career. As the agricultural industry underwent a downturn during the late ’80s and ’90s, the Purdys had to make a pivotal decision.

Like so many, they did not want to leave the farm. When the provincial government introduced a diversification program to make farms more viable, the Purdys seized the opportunity.

Their product choice may seem surprising since Sandra Purdy had never experienced one tradition that makes up a part of so many prairie childhoods: Saskatoon berries.

Called Mi-sask-quah-too-mina by the Cree, it was a staple for early settlers and native people. Its antioxidant component promotes anti-cancer, anti-aging, and anti-heart problems. According to a recent Japanese study, its anthocyanin component also fights the battle of the bulge.

Saskatoons trump their blueberry cousins nutritionally. Their content is higher in protein, fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, manganese, Vitamin C, riboflavin, and Vitamin B6.

Not only is the berry wholesome, but being native to the prairie provinces, the hardy plant requires much less TLC than many other crops. This mighty berry, Purdy decided, would be her family’s future.

Before Purdy left her job in 1998, the couple faced a steep learning curve. To learn more about the industry, they joined the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association, traveled Canada and the US to look at different models of fruit orchards, and studied horticulture through university.

By 1996, Prairie Berries had a fully-planted 10-acre orchard. Because Saskatoons do not come into full production until year seven, the company would need interim income. That year, to test market opportunities and supplement revenue, it began processing Saskatoons from other growers.

Today, Prairie Berries Inc. targets the fresh-frozen market and the ingredient industry. The company has developed several Saskatoon berry products including sweetened dried fruit, purees, spray-dried powder, juice, and a concentrate. Since 2003, Dairyland has produced a low-fat Saskatoon berry yogurt. Co-op retail outlets now carry 600-gram bags of frozen Saskatoon berries. Both sources are supplied by Prairie Berries Inc.

The company also wants a slice of the health food and sports markets. Its research project through National Research Council Canada’s (NRC) Industrial Research Assistance Program succeeded into processing the berries into a spray-dried powder which can be used in yogurts, supplements, and sports aids.

The couple are grateful to the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Saskatchewan and the Industrial National Research Program managed by NRC. Those organizations supplied grants which helped fund the company’s research and provided technical assistance. “We certainly would not be as far ahead as we are now if it weren’t for those programs,” says Purdy.

The company’s success has been recognized through two awards from the Canadian Fine Food Show in Toronto and an MJBEX award. To further promote the superfruit, the company teamed up with Dragon’s Den’s Arlene Dickinson in the fall of 2010. The show’s exposure “was like a volcanic eruption—opening awareness about a prairie fruit that has great nutritional value,” says Purdy.

In October 2011, Prairie Berries made a strategic decision not to go with Dickinson because of other offers that arose. In July, an extremely interested company from the U.S., Select Ingredients, had stepped forward to work with Prairie Berries in the functional and neutraceutical industry in that country. To prove their intent they put a $60,000 order into the company and to this date continue to work with Prairie Berries on positioning Saskatoon berries in the U.S. market. “In fact, they will be with us at the Natural Products Health Show in Anaheim, California on March 9–11th, 2012 to help with promotion and marketing,” Purdy adds.

Locally grown products support locally-grown companies which helps build jobs that contribute to the economy, says Purdy. “We need to be processing what we grow right here,” she says; this belief in a potential Saskatoon berry industry led her to develop the Saskatoon Berry Council of Canada. The council focuses on market development through collective action of industry. In 2007, their conviction also led the couple to plant another 120 acres of Saskatoon berry bushes.

Purdy has two final messages for readers. Firstly: “We are fortunate to have a province that is so productive in its ability to produce food. So if we want to diversify the food we grow, it requires support and collaboration from growers, processors, researchers, industry and government to build new agri-food based industries,” she says.

And second: “Eat Saskatoons—they are good for you.”

For more information on Prairie Berries Inc., please contact:

Sandra Purdy
President, Prairie Berries Inc.
Telephone: (306) 788-2018
E-mail: prairieberries@sasktel.net