At first glance, the prairie environment does not appear conducive to fruit production, but in fact the people of Saskatchewan have a long tradition associated with fruit usage and production. Historically, native fruit species were important to indigenous peoples and, subsequently, European settlers. The explorer David Thompson suggested in 1787-88 that the saskatoon ought to be cultivated in Canada and England. The first professor of horticulture at the University of Saskatchewan, C.F. Patterson, included an entire chapter in his 1936 book on native fruits that merited cultivation. Saskatchewan native fruit species include the saskatoon, choke cherry, pin cherry, buffaloberry, highbush cranberry, blueberry, bog cranberry, wild grape, hawthorn, lingonberry, beaked hazelnut, and wild rose. The saskatoon has now overtaken the strawberry as the most important fruit crop on the prairies. A wide range of domesticated fruit species also can be successfully produced in Saskatchewan. The domesticated small and tree fruits include strawberries, raspberries, black and red currants, gooseberries, bush cherries, apples, pears and plums. U-Pick strawberries have long been a part of a typical prairie summer. Apples have always been popular with gardeners in Saskatchewan, but fruit size and quality have been limited by the harsh climate.
The fruit industry in Saskatchewan is spearheaded by the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers' Association, an organization comprised of both growers and processors. The industry grew from about eight ha in 1980 to over 600 ha in 2002. In 2002, the Saskatchewan fruit industry had 328 growers, with a total of 613 ha of fruit. There were 240 saskatoon growers (366 ha), 94 strawberry growers (86 ha), and 59 fruit growers (62 ha) of other fruit crops (raspberry, apple, choke cherry, sour cherry, sea buckthorn, plum and cherry plum, black currant, highbush cranberry). An average of 1.5 million pounds of saskatoons were produced in both 2001 and 2002; 500,000 pounds of saskatoons were processed in 2001 (a $5 million value) by ten processors marketing fresh, frozen and processed products. The total value of the saskatoon crop (fresh and processed) in 2001 was $6.5 million. The Saskatchewan fruit industry employs approximately 300 people, full or part-time.
Fruit production in Saskatchewan is both challenging and rewarding. The short growing season, late-spring and early-fall frosts, lack of sufficient rainfall, strong winds, severe winter temperatures, and lack of winter snow cover, along with the high cost of labour for harvesting, sorting/cleaning and transport, and the sparse population, place significant limits on fruit production. In general, only relatively few, adequately hardy varieties of the domesticated fruit species are suitable for the harsh local climatic conditions. Most Saskatchewan commercial fruit operations involve hardy small fruit species. Good management practices, including site selection and preparation, variety selection, irrigation, fertilization, and weed, insect pest and disease control, are essential to successful fruit production in the province. Because of high labour costs, mechanical harvesting is becoming a more common practice. The relatively low incidence of insect pest and disease problems has inspired many fruit growers to adopt organic production practices. The warm, sunny, dry prairie summers enhance fruit quality and help decrease the incidence of disease.
Increasingly widespread cultivation of fruit species in small orchards, shelterbelts and hedgerows is contributing to the diversification and health of the prairie agricultural economy by enhancing alternative agricultural production, by promoting the development of mixed cropping operations, and by providing a more substantive base for a processing industry. Both native and domestic fruits are characterized by a variety of traits that allow substantial versatility of use. Their multipurpose function includes use as ornamentals for landscaping purposes, wildlife habitat improvement, shelterbelts and hedgerows, and as edible fruits that help balance and diversify our diets, and make eating a pleasure. Some fruits like the saskatoon and blueberry can be eaten fresh. Processed fruit products include jams, jellies, sauces, syrups, juices, ice cream, yogurt, chocolates, muffins, pies, tarts, cookies, pancakes, wine and liqueurs, raisins, fruit leathers, water-reduced purees, flavour concentrates, and dyes.
Research and industry development is associated with the Native Fruit Development Program and the Domestic Fruit Program in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, in conjunction with the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers' Association and the Government of Saskatchewan - Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization. The Native Fruit Development Program at the University of Saskatchewan is a program of industry development oriented to the biology, culture and improvement of native fruit species, the primary goal being to help develop some of our native fruit species into new horticultural crops and thus contribute to agricultural diversification within the province.
The Native Fruit Development Program has made substantial contributions to the development of the saskatoon industry in particular, with the creation of disease-resistant varieties, improved methods of propagation, improved crop management practices, and improved post-harvest practices. The main funding for this program was terminated in 2004. However, some components of the fruit research are being pursued. The Domestic Fruit Program at the University of Saskatchewan is focussing on the further development of hardy sour cherry, raspberry and apple varieties with good fruit quality. New cultivars developed and released have included SK Prairie Sun apple, the new sour cherry cultivar SK Carmine Jewel, and the higher-yielding and more cold-hardy summer-bearing raspberries SK Red Mammoth and SK Red Bounty.