Wrenshall’s Farm LoLa was buzzing with activity Thursday, July 11, as hired pickers harvested its newest offering: honeyberries.
The small, oblong berries resemble blueberries, but have a sharp twist.
“It’s like a blueberry meets a SweeTart,” Farm LoLa owner Jason Amundsen said as he tasted a freshly picked berry.
Honeyberries are a shrub native to Siberia, Poland and northern Japan that Amundsen has tried to add to the roster of berries available at Farm LoLa in the last few seasons.
Farm LoLa started as the “pick-your-own berry wing” of Locally Laid Egg Co., according to the website. Locally Laid sells eggs from pasture-raised chickens to local restaurants and supermarkets.
Farm LoLa started with raspberries and blueberries, beginning its honeyberry experiment in 2016 after working with a consultant in Scotland.
Amundsen said he believed the climate of northeastern Minnesota was similar enough to Siberia — honeyberries can survive in temperatures as cold as 47 degrees below zero — but the experience hasn’t been without challenges.
“We’ve made so many mistakes. It’s been a very humbling experience,” Amundsen said. “You can’t go to the (University of Minnesota) Extension or the Department of Agriculture to ask how to grow honeyberries because nobody is doing it here.”
Amundsen planted 10 acres of honeyberries at Farm LoLa, but getting to the point of harvest provided plenty of challenges. Farm LoLa has seven types of honeyberries growing, with the wojtek and ruben varieties quickly becoming the most productive.
The strawberry sensation variety, which purportedly tastes like strawberries, was a bit tougher, with the farm losing 80% of the first group of plants it received. Amundsen said the strawberry sensation grows well once established, but getting to that point was an exercise in trial-and-error without the typical resources Farm LoLa uses for support.
“You can’t Google experience,” Amundsen said.
Since getting the strawberry sensation bushes established, Farm LoLa has struck a deal with Love Creamery in Duluth to make an ice cream with the berries.
Amundsen also noted another pitfall in raising honeyberries: birds.
Birds are a constant danger for the berries. Amundsen said most honeyberry growers in the U.S. have a small area and simply net the plots to keep birds out. Farm LoLa’s 10 acres required a more creative solution.
Amundsen set up small speakers at the end of the row that mix in distress calls of cedar waxwing birds with the calls of predatory birds to keep them away from the bushes. Each speaker is powered by its own solar cell at the bottom of the speaker’s pole.
“This was our first big test to see if they keep the birds away and so far it’s worked,” Amundsen said. “Either this has to work or we’re out of business — because if not, the birds are going to win.”
Other varieties, including wojtek and ruben, will be used by Blacklist Brewing Co. and Ursa Minor Brewing, both in Duluth, to make beers. The higher tannins — naturally occurring polyphenol found in plants — in the other varieties, combined with less sweetness, make them ideal for brewing.
Individual boxes of honeyberries are also being sold at both Whole Foods Co-op locations in Duluth and the West Duluth Super One Foods.
Amundsen said they would likely host only one pick-your-own honeyberry night, but go to Farm LoLa’s Facebook page for announcements on pick-your-own raspberry and blueberry nights later in the summer.