They look like a mad scientist’s idea of a blueberry.
Yes, the deep purple-blue color is there, but instead of the familiar orb-like shape, the profile is more elongated; think capsule, or lozenge, or teardrop.
Still, the honeyberry has all the juiciness — and the burst of sweet-tart zinginess — of a just-picked blueberry.
“It’s a combination of a wild blueberry meets a raspberry meets a blackberry,” said farmer Jason Amundsen. “It’s magical.”
He would know. Amundsen has 10 acres of honeyberry bushes under cultivation at his farm in Wrenshall, Minn., about 30 miles southwest of Duluth, and he’s banking on the honeyberry becoming local agriculture’s Next Big Thing.
Why not? The plant is both fast-growing and extremely hardy, with origins in Siberia and Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido.
“Nothing matches those climate conditions better than Duluth,” said Amundsen with a laugh.
Enduring a Minnesota winter isn’t the honeyberry’s only virtue.
“They ripen early, even before strawberries, so that’s great for Minnesotans, to have a fresh fruit that you can eat out of hand that early,” said Jim Riddle, co-owner of Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, which has been raising a small honeyberry crop for six years. “Because they bloom in April, they’re a magnet for early-season pollinators. And they have the highest antioxidants of any fruit that we can grow.”
There’s a reason why Minnesotans are only now getting acquainted with this seemingly miraculous berry.
“Historically, it has not had a great taste,” said Amundsen. “But over the past 20 years, breeding has driven up not only the productivity of the fruit, but also the quality and the taste. Today, anything you can do with a blueberry, you can do with a honeyberry.”
For Amundsen, the foray into honeyberries was sparked by a question.
“And that’s, ‘How do you make a farm pay for itself?’ ” he said. “I really wanted to avoid monoculture farming, which is why we’ve been building a diversified farm under the Locally Laid umbrella.”
If Locally Laid looks familiar, it’s because it’s the brand name for the pasture-raised chicken operation that Amundsen has been overseeing since 2012 with the help of his brother, Brian Amundsen.
Right now, the farm has 500 hens mowing down the poultry version of an open-air salad bar, fuel for producing the beautiful Locally Laid brown eggs that are sold in many Twin Cities supermarkets and food co-ops.
Raspberries and blueberries — cultivated in a U-pick operation christened Farm LoLa — followed a few years later, along with hard-neck garlic. In 2016, 10,000 honeyberry bushes — a mix of seven different varieties — were planted, constituting what is the nation’s first wholesale commercial honeyberry operation.
“The learning curve has been brutal, but we’ve taken what we’ve learned from blueberries and raspberries and have tried to apply it to honeyberries,” said Amundsen. “My brother and I grew up playing hockey in Edina, and nothing about being rink rats prepares you for honeyberry farming.”
At the farm, the equivalent of what’s probably a half-dozen football fields is neatly covered in long rows of honeyberry bushes. A nearby clover field, blazing in yellow flowers, is a haven for the orchard’s hardworking pollinators.
For visitors, the first impression comes via the eerie, cacophonous screeches that emanate from three solar-powered speakers spaced across the orchard. It’s the prerecorded distress call of the cedar waxwing, a notorious berry eater, and a high-tech defense mechanism that’s more manageable than draping the orchard in protective netting.
(“It’s the kind of horrifying noise that despotic regimes use to torture their political prisoners,” said Amundsen with a laugh.)
Farm LoLa’s average honeyberry plant currently measures about 18 inches in height and roughly the same width; they’ll mature to a bushy 4 feet. Each was planted by hand, and the constant chore of weeding is also a manual task. A crew of nearly 20 people will handle the pick-by-hand harvesting duties over the next few days; Amundsen hopes to develop a mechanized harvesting system.
An enterprising go-between
Amundsen was introduced to the honeyberry by Russ Davis Wholesale. The Wadena, Minn.-based distributor and processor of fresh fruits and vegetables was looking for a farm to take on wholesale honeyberry production.
“This has been such a fun partnership to forge, because honeyberries check off all of the boxes of our world,” said Max Maddaus, Kowalski’s produce director. “They’re local and fresh, and they’re also a new, exciting item. You eat a locally raised berry and it’s like eating candy. I’m sure that these won’t fall short.”
Some Farm LoLa honeyberries will also be channeled to foodmakers. White Bear Meadery (1995 E. County Road E, Gem Lake, whitebearmeadery.com) will be using honeyberries to produce a specialty mead, the ancient fermented beverage. Love Creamery (1908 W. Superior St., Duluth, lovecreamery.com) owner Nicole Wilde plans to incorporate the berries into a limited-run ice cream.
“No one has ever done this before, so it’s a big adventure for everyone,” said Amundsen. “There are a lot of unknowns. But, so far, so good.”