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INNOVATIONS: Currant Events

author: Denny Manchee   photos: Johnny C.Y. Lam

Header innovation currant events summer 2017


They’re black, flavourful, packed with nutrition and ripe for a comeback if this Brighton grower has his way

WHAT DO YOU DO AT 72 AFTER A CAREER IN THE MILITARY, another at Corrections Canada and yet another in custom upholstery? If you’re type A Joe Hayes, there’s no lounging involved. No way, you start something new – in his case growing black currants (Ribes nigrum) and developing a product line for commercial sale.

Joe, who bought a 17-acre property near Brighton in 1982, closed his home upholstery business a few years ago because his hands were no longer up to the finicky details. But evidence of his fine workmanship is everywhere in the house he shares with partner Priscilla Courtenay: the Eamesish lounger and ottoman in the living room, several sofas, even the swivelling dining chairs. The man is an intuitive designer, builder and innovator.

But what led to black currants, such a labour intensive crop for a septuagenarian? Having already severed off all the possible lots on his land, he wondered what he could do with the remaining 13 acres. “I was mowing all the time and said, ‘No more, this is crazy!” He’d also had experience with the ups and downs of the stock market, and had made some money, but not as much as the people doing the investing. “I said, to hell with it, I’m going to invest in ME, and put what money I have in this and see how it goes,” says the now 75-year-old.

He thought about growing berries and, being of British heritage, was fond of black currants – a taste no doubt developed during the war years. Oranges and other foods rich in vitamin C were scarce at the time, so the government encouraged widespread cultivation of winter-hardy black currants, which contained three times the vitamin C as oranges. The syrup was distributed free to children from 1942 on – minus its brand name Ribena – instilling a national appetite for the berry that exists to this day.

Joe contacted the Ontario Berry Growers Association and asked about black currants, since there were no growers listed on the website. “There’s nobody doing them,” said the fellow on the other end.

But there’s an important backstory about why nobody was doing them, why black currants are rare in North America. Although native to northern Europe and Asia, when they were introduced to the United States, they brought with them a couple of serious plant diseases, including white pine blister rust, to which North America’s towering forests had no genetic resistance. As a result, black currants (the disease vector) were banned in many jurisdictions for most of the 20th century.

“I said, to hell with it, I’m going to invest in ME, and put what money I have in this and see how it goes,” says the now 75-year-old.

(FYI, the dried currants you buy in the grocery store are not currants at all, but black Corinth grapes! They’re a small, seedless variety that originally came from the Greek island Zakynthos.)

It was American Greg Quinn who led the fight against the ban in 2003. A children’s book author, restaurateur, teacher at the New York Botanical Gardens for 20-plus years, broadcaster and latter-day farmer, Quinn researched pine blister rust and discovered there were cultivars of black currants that weren’t vectors for the disease. Armed with supporting documentation, he spoke to many people in the New York Legislature, which ultimately led to a bill that overturned the ban in that state.

The next question was, where to get plant stock? Enter McGinnis Berry Crops in Courtenay, BC. Richard McGinnis, 72, has been propagating black currants since 1977, starting with the Ben Lomand variety from Scotland, which he got permission to import while studying soil science at the University of British Columbia. He has since developed a number of disease-resistant varieties and is the largest provider of plant stock in Canada (50,000- 60,000 plants/year). Quinn purchased 6,000 plants from McGinnis and began an enterprise called CurrantC that’s keeping him busy in his late 60s. Joe was also directed to Richard McGinnis. “I called him and got the prices and decided that’s what I’m going to do, and I’ll be different from everyone else.”

Joe decided an old hay field on his property was the easiest place to start since he didn’t have to clear any trees. “That’s where we put in the first 1,250 in May of 2015,” he says. “It took about 10 days to get them here in a refrigerated unit, and it was our first planting experience. I’m not a farmer, this is all totally new to me and I’m learning as I go.” Inventing, too. He got a post-hole auger and designed it into a three-hole drill. “I drew it all up and Bird’s machinery in Codrington made it for me. Now I can drill 480 holes/hour and the plant plugs just drop right in.”

During last summer’s drought, Joe also devised a deep-root-watering system – a hose attached to copper pipes with four holes in the bottom and a foot rest for stamping the pipe into the ground. By that time they had 8,700 plants (Whistler, Blackcomb, Stikine, Tahsis and Tiben) and they footwatered each one about one-and-a-half times!

“That’s why they survived, and then the berries came on like gangbusters,” says Joe. All of a sudden they were putting U-pick signs on the road and washing and freezing like mad.

“But they got ahead of us,” says Priscilla, “so we took them to the OAFVC [Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre] in Colborne and they froze them for us.” The centre also designed a logo for Popham Lane Farm and labels for the jam and syrup. “They’ve been amazing,” says Joe. “It was Karma that the facility was opening just as we were starting this business.”

The OAFVC has also been a place to connect with other food entrepreneurs and create partnerships. “Pris made a fabulous black currant cheesecake with mascarpone cheese and we took it to the centre as a thank you for their open house, and ran into the Ontario Water Buffalo Company people from Stirling,” says Joe. “They loved the syrup they tasted at the open house and are going to use it in their gelato.” Meanwhile, another partnership is brewing with Kinsip distillery in Bloomfield. “We’re working on cassis,” says Joe, passing me a small glass to taste.

Juice, rehydrating black currant water, jam, sauce, popsicles, BBQ sauce, cassis – the product line keeps growing as the crop gets bigger. “I want to have 14,000-15,000 plants eventually. I’m putting in another 3,000 over there this year,” he says, pointing east out the kitchen window.

Joe has a big vision: “I call the berries we have in Canada the big three – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. I’d like to make it the big four. The nutritional value of black currants is superior [vitamin C, anthocyanins and much more], and I think it’s about time the Canadian palate was introduced to black currants again.

“My aim is to align myself with new, local entrepreneurs to help grow our businesses together with new products not readily found in the rest of Ontario, or Canada, for that matter.”

Popham Lane Farm jam and sauce are now available at Doo Doo’s Bakery in Bailieboro and Burnham Family Farm Market west of Cobourg, and keep your eye out for more of their delicious products this summer. If you want to pick your own berries, head over to 503 Lakeshore Road in Brighton in July. Facebook.com/PophamLane/

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