Skip to main content

Ken and Sandra Purdy, shown at their farm near Keeler, Sask., on Sept. 14, 2011, are setting out to grow the world's next superfruit: Saskatoon Berries.Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail

A few kilometres down a gravel road that cuts through the golden sprawl of endless wheat fields, 10 acres of Saskatoon berry trees unfurl in an unexpected burst of green.

The neat rows, which droop with purplish berries for two weeks every summer, are the nerve centre of an ambitious effort led by new-age farmer Sandra Purdy. A retired telecom worker, she is toiling to transform the humble berry into a worldwide sensation as Canada's first indigenous superfruit, a much-hyped category that includes blueberries, pomegranates and the Amazonian açai and has grown into a $9-billion industry.

To do it, Ms. Purdy and her husband, Ken, a lifelong wheat farmer, have literally bet the family farm. Over the course of a decade the Purdys have leveraged their third-generation land plus a chunk of retirement savings to fund scientific tests, seed 120 acres with berry trees and amass a warehouse of high-tech equipment to help the berry crack foreign health-food markets, in particular the United States. They are the largest growers of Saskatoon berries in the world.

"If I fail, I lose my husband's land. I try not to think about that," Ms. Purdy said the other day over a slice of warm Saskatoon berry pie in her farmhouse kitchen. With its tired paint and appliances, the worn room is a testament to the Purdys' shrunken discretionary income: She and Ken have poured about $1-million worth of loans and labour into the effort and have not yet taken a paycheque. Neither, though, is daunted.

"Somebody always has to be first," Ms. Purdy said. "Somebody has to take the risk."

The payoff could be lucrative not just for Ms. Purdy's small company, Prairie Berries, but for the hundreds of western growers who would be called on to fill orders; many now let a portion of their fruit rot instead of harvesting it for the narrow, local market.

The challenge is to figure out how to hook the world on the obscure Saskatoon. Ms. Purdy, who turns frequently to a superfruit strategy manual that has become her bible, has learned that any superberry's success hinges not on its good taste or nutritional brawn, but on marketing.

"Superfruits," the book counsels, "are made, not born."

Superfruits not so super?

So she's developing a double expertise: not only agronomy, but how to sell in a crowded market. Adding to her challenges is a mounting body of research that questions whether superfruits, in the processed and diluted forms they are sold in, are really the cure-all proponents claim.

Ms. Purdy's mission is to find the balance point – if there is one – between running an ethical business and super-sizing sales of her fruit. Her family's future hinges on it.

"I've been managing through it and no loans have been called on me yet," Ms. Purdy said, a flicker of worry passing beneath her smile.

A purple pome resembling a blueberry, the Saskatoon has a history of being used in native communities to treat diarrhea, menstrual symptoms and eye ailments. It was flavour, though – a cross between a blueberry and a black cherry – that drove it into the Western Canadian mainstream. Every summer, berry lovers pay up to $5 a pound for fresh fruit to bake into pastries, jams and syrups.

Its first signs of superfruit potential surfaced midway through the 1980s when research, funded through a government of Saskatchewan grant, discovered that Saskatoons and wild blueberries have similar phenolic compounds – natural elements known more commonly as antioxidants. In test-tube studies, they show potential to fight off bacteria, viruses and cell activity related to cancer.

But Ms. Purdy's bible, the $1,200 trade tome Successful Superfruit Strategy: How To Build a Superfruit Business, advises that the science is nearly worthless unless someone promotes it.

Take the wild blueberry: Through the mid-1990s, its industry association commissioned mounds of research, pushed the positive results into top U.S. health magazines and dispatched advocates to spread the word. Global sales soared – over five years, Japan, the largest importer of North American blueberries, increased its consumption by 25 million pounds.

In Keeler, Ms. Purdy was watching the blueberry's commercial explosion and becoming more convinced that the Saskatoon had similar sales potential. In 1993, she and her husband devoted 10 acres of their wheat field to plant berry trees. The trees reached maturity around 2001, just as the Brazilian açai fruit (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) was rising in the U.S. superfruit market, popping up in everything from smoothies and juices to natural supplements. Other fruits – cranberries and pomegranates – were starting to vie for a slice of the pie.

Anxious to compete, Ms. Purdy hired experts to create a Saskatoon berry concentrate and a soluble powder; she bought equipment to dehydrate the berries and a liquid nitrogen setup to freeze them. She spent her own money to market the berry at trade shows; to draw others into her mission, she started an industry association.

But growers remained skeptical. Carol Wedlund, a livestock-turned-berry farmer from Lacombe, in central Alberta, planted her Saskatoons in 1996. "The suppliers we were buying the seedlings from sounded like, 'You grow 'em, there'll be a market. People will buy everything you can grow,'" she said. "That's not how it is."

In 2009, Ms. Purdy lined up the berry's biggest chance yet – a pitch meeting with Tim Hortons. Ms. Purdy stockpiled 750,000 pounds of fruit from her orchard and others to ensure an ample supply. "We thought we had them hooked."

Tim's deal fell through

But the pitch soured when blueberries dropped in price to less than a third of the cost of the Prairie fruit. Ms. Purdy was stuck with no way to pay growers for their berries and a $56,000 cold-storage bill. "We're still trying to work our way out of the debt that whole scenario created for us," she admitted.

She has made ground since then, establishing a relationship with Quebec-based juice maker Lassonde to integrate the Saskatoons into a new antioxidant blend; a California company is using them in antacids, and a British Columbia firm is looking at them to flavour a natural flu remedy.

And an appearance on CBC's Dragon's Den created enough publicity to lead Bruce Howe, a U.S. superfood distribution expert, to Prairie Berries's rural headquarters. Hooked on the berry's potential to combat not only cancer-related issues, but diabetes, obesity and other commonly suffered ills, Mr. Howe began attending trade shows with the Purdys this year and is now mapping out a plan to introduce the Saskatoon – rebranded the "June berry" – to the United States.

"I believe the time has come for a berry like this to be introduced to the market," he said.

Not all growers are convinced. "We're not quite sure what to think," said Ms. Wedlund. She was one of the growers who sunk berries into the failed doughnut pitch. "We're at a stage where we're not going to hang our hats on this particular industry."

In the research community, there are more questions than answers about the science used to promote the benefits of consuming superfruits.

The ORAC scale is the measuring stick that either springboards or sinks produce aiming for super status. Developed 15 years ago by U.S. food scientist Ronald Prior, ORAC stands for "oxygen radical absorbance capacity" and essentially produces a score of how well the compounds in a given food counter oxidative stress. In the human body, oxidative stress is connected to diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

"Everybody looks for the biggest number they can get so they can be No. 1," Mr. Prior said. "That's not the whole story."

What isn't conveyed by the ORAC is that berries' antioxidant capacity vary with their form. Fresh berries have much higher potential than those processed into juice or powder – the forms in which most consumers purchase them.

Like other superfruits, the Saskatoon commands high ORAC ratings. Uniquely, though, it holds onto more antioxidants than its competitors in powdered form, according to a study conducted by POS Bio-Sciences in Saskatoon commissioned by Ms. Purdy. It also retains a high level of anthocyanins, a special class of antioxidants which, combined with the berry's high fibre content, could set it apart in the market.

Research, however, has not proven that the antioxidant effects teased out in test tubes actually have corresponding effects in the body. Until there is clarity, marketers are content to let consumers assume that eating antioxidants, in any of their powdered and pulverized forms, will make them healthier.

That includes Ms. Purdy, who finds herself checking her conscience against the need to eventually turn a profit whenever she talks up the science behind her berries.

"Do I play the game a little bit? Yes, I do. But I'm not lying," she said. "I'm just telling a partial truth. That's the way business is done in this industry, and if you're going to play in it, you better play like a big boy or you're going to lose."