Aldergrove farmer believes goji berries have a bright future in B.C.

When people meet B.C.’s first commercial goji berry grower, they inevitably ask him the same question: “What do goji berries look like?”

If you’re the slightest bit health-conscious, you’ve tried the so-called superfruit that’s a popular addition to smoothies, though you’ve probably never seen a fresh berry.

That’s because the bulk of the world’s goji berries are grown in China, where they’ve been prized for their health benefits for centuries before becoming a North American favourite. Extremely perishable, the berries are either frozen, dried, pounded into powder or juiced before reaching local stores.

Aldergrove farmer Peter Breederland is hoping to change that.

On Friday, Breederland took The Province on a tour of his 10-acre goji berry field, where the crop is just beginning to ripen. From now until Labour Day, the berries will be hand-picked each morning before being carefully shipped to local Choices, Whole Foods and Urban Fare stores.

Standing among bushes spotted with berries that look like red jelly beans, Breederland said he was drawn to goji by the “challenge.”

“It was appealing to be growing something new,” he said.

Many North American farmers have tried and failed to produce goji, but Breederland has several factors in his favour.

The Fraser Valley’s climate is similar to the region in China where most of the world’s goji is grown.

“I knew it would survive our winter and like our summer,” said the farmer, who has 35 years experience in the greenhouse industry in Holland, Cyprus and B.C.

With a few helpful connections in China, and all the expertise of the Fraser Valley’s blueberry and raspberry growers in his backyard, Breederland set out to become B.C.’s first commercial goji berry grower.

Apart from a few hobby farms and a plant breeder in Saskatchewan, Breederland believes he could be the first commercial goji berry farmer in North America. Search “North American goji cultivation” on the Internet, and you’ll find stories of crops devastated by birds, deer and rain.

For Breederland, who is open about his success but secretive about its finer points, determining the correct fertilizer and proper pruning shape for the bushes has been a game of trial and error. Visitors are not welcome in his field, which is bordered by tall evergreens, as he continues to experiment with different growing techniques.

“We’re learning as we go,” he said.

Like most berries, goji do not produce fruit for the first two years after planting.

When Breederland’s first crop was ready, he tried selling for the fresh market, but ran into problems with shelf life, said Jeremy Cockrill, who does business development and marketing for Breederland’s company, Gojoy Berries.

“Part of this is about educating the public,” Cockrill explained. Consumers and retailers are encouraged to think about the berries like raspberries, which begin to turn mushy in about 48 hours. The company recently partnered with a Langley distributor who specializes in bringing fresh, perishable berries to Vancouver markets and uses strict temperature control. The berries should be refrigerated immediately.

But Breederland isn’t putting all his berries in one basket, so to speak. He’s harvested enough goji to create a frozen smoothie product made with a blend of local berries, including blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries and, of course, goji berries. With no sugar or preservatives added, all the fruit comes from the Fraser Valley, where it is also puréed and packaged. The Gojoy smoothie booster is available year-round at Choices and Nature’s Fare.

Breederland admitted that he’s only 30 or 40 per cent of the way toward his production goals, but he’s optimistic.

Invigorated by the challenge, he said he’s “absolutely convinced” the future of B.C.-grown goji berries is bright.

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