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Chetwynd school gets hands-on learning with berry experiment

Peace Christian School takes part in University of Saskatchewan study to evaluate the Haskap berry's potential to become a cash crop in the region

There’s a sparse clearing of land just under an acre in size on the grounds of the Peace Christian School near Chetwynd that right now, doesn’t look like much. But a lot can change over the winter.

By spring, principal Darren Shankel’s latest project — the school’s first experimental garden — will really be coming into focus and it could be a boon both economically and educationally for students at the K- 12 private school. 

In partnership with FloraMaxx Technologies Ltd. of Kelowna, who are providing the plants they will need, the school is taking part in a research project with the University of Saskatchewan that looks into the commercial viability of the Haskap berry as a cash crop in the Peace Region. 

Haskap was introduced to Canada as part of the University of Saskatchewan’s Fruit Breeding program.

“As far as the Peace Country goes, especially this far west in the Chetwynd area, we can grow hay and cattle,” Shankel said. “We’re snookered for other options. To run cattle and grow your own hay you need 1,000 acres and whatever else. The potential economics of (the Haskap berry) is you can plant 1,000 plants per acre.”

With a current rock bottom value of $10 - $15 a pound and the potential for each plant to produce eight to ten pounds once they’ve reached full maturity, Shankel sees not only an opportunity for his students to participate in research with a major Canadian University, but also a potential revenue generator for the school. 

The Project

Because of its contract with the University of Saskatchewan, FloraMaxx is producing several varieties of Haskap that aren’t yet available on the market. It’s these plants — 320 advanced varieties in total — that the school will grow on site while recording data for the university. 

There are three other grow sites in the study, two in Kelowna and one in Salmon Arm.

Parents of students at the school, including Shankel himself, have also volunteered to come on board and try a test patch of Haskap on their property. This offers more controls and comparisons for the research with the university's fruit breeding program.

“The entire school is committed to using this project to reach the curriculum goals where they can,” Shankel said. “There’s math, biology, scientific applications… all that stuff is here for them to learn from. But worst case scenario if this is a catastrophic failure, my kids have still had the opportunity to do real research with a major Canadian university.”

Dr. Ashish Dave at FloraMaxx said he was excited to have a grower in the area. 

“Nobody has done a study of which varieties do well in which parts of the varied climate of B.C.,” Dave said. 

Dr. Ashish Dave, PhD with FlorraMaxx Technologies Ltd., demonstrates Haskap propagation in his lab using plant tissue culture technology. FloraMaxx has a contract to test new species of Haskap for the University of Saskatchewan, which it will provide to the Peace Christian School for its experimental garden. - Supplied

Ashish hopes that by having the school take part in the study and do the reporting on the plant’s growth, he will be able to pinpoint which varieties of Haskap do well in the Peace. That means his lab can produce a Peace Region specific plant that could spawn the growth of the berry’s potential as a cash crop for the area. 

The plant will bloom in - 7 degrees, and can live in up to -45 degrees, making it the perfect candidate to survive the harsh Peace Country winters. 

Tricking students into learning

Like the Project Based Learning trend that is sweeping through the public school system in B.C., the Haskap project at Peace Christian is a chance to trick kids into learning while they’re having fun, Shankel said. 

“What we’re trying to do is allow them to explore information and learn something from it,” he said. “Them experiencing something means that knowledge is a lot more likely to stick. The project is about real research.”

Not only that, but if they can prove that Haskap can earn a supplemental income for people in the Peace Country who have an acerage, than the entire region wins.

“If this does become an industry in the Peace, these kids are going to have more experience than anybody,” Shankel said. “So now they’ll have a marketable skill. They can help with orchards, run their own orchards whatever that looks like…The more relevant, cutting edge… more interesting you can make it for kids, the more likely it is for them to become engaged.”

For the time being, when you factor in the profit margin on growing the berry and the small amount of land needed to bring in a good chunk of revenue,  it’s an equation that adds up to opportunity.

In his research on the plant, Shankel heard from producers who said the market at the current rate could take up to ten years to catch up to the present demand for the berry, meaning prices for growers are bound to remain solid for the time being. 

If it all works out, the berry could become an interesting future option for farmers in the area.

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—follow @mike_carter05 on Twitter.

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