By Erin Schneider | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
What are the factors that influence a future food tradition? How might we expand the production of fruit in our region? How do we expand the fruit possibilities available to our region’s eaters?
My husband and I are exploring these questions currently with, well, currants.
We co-own Hilltop Community Farm, a small-scale diversified community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise in La Valle, where we have begun to specialize in unique varieties of fruits.
We’ve always been sustainability-minded and we realized that perennial agriculture, with its minimal soil-disruption, needed to be an increasing part of our farm. We’d had good luck with apples, pears, raspberries and hardy kiwi and thought we’d set out to meet some new fruit neighbors.
In 2009 we expanded our perennial production with an orchard of fruits that would be well-adapted to our climate and soil, while suffering few diseases or insect pests. This would hopefully allow us to minimize inputs and ongoing care once the orchard was established. After some research, we set out to grow unusual yet marketable fruits such as aronia, quince, saskatoons, seaberries, elderberries, honeyberries, and currants. These can all be sustainablygrown from an ecological, economic and social standpoint, and they exhibit high nutraceutical content, sustaining our bodies as well.
The shift toward building long-lasting perennial food systems is not just in thinking about fruit, but thinking about function and how to grow fruits (and any perennial food) in relation to one another. By adopting the cultivation practice of “forest garden guilds” (Edible Forest Gardens, Jacke & Toenmeister, 2007), a number of unrelated species may be grown in proximity to one another in complementary ways so that they might best thrive in a natural ecosystem.
As an example of this forest structure mimicry, shade-loving fruits like currants can be grown successfully with large trees like quince if they are placed at the dripline where they will be well-watered. Seaberry grown uphill will continuously fix nitrogen in the soil, and an understory plant like comfrey will “mine” the subsoil for necessary trace-elements and drop them in the currant’s root-zone during annual leaf-fall. Such conscious, relational thinking can potentially transform farming into a much more ecological activity.
During a recent farm-sitting stint at Hilltop, Micah Hahn, UW-Madison Public Health Ph.D. candidate and recent discoverer of a white currant shrub in her backyard, observed, “Walking through Hilltop’s orchard, you immediately notice all the layers and lifeforms. It’s like a demonstration garden for all the sustainability practices that I have learned over the years: companion plantings, space for perennial fruit and flowers to attract pollinators and thick mulching. Sampling the currants from [Hilltop’s] quickly expanding fruit guilds was half the fun, but we also gleaned lots of information about insects, forest gardening, and fruit markets in the short time we spent [on the farm].”
Other diversified, complementary orchards are taking root on the farm scale as well as nationwide with community orchard projects popping up from Portland, Oregon’s Fruit Tree Project to Atlanta, Georgia’s Concrete Jungle, and closer to home with Madison Fruit and Nuts and the Farley Center’s Orchard Stewards Program.
While diversity and community are at the heart of these projects, I want to give autonomy to currants and share where they might fit into your own tastes and conversations.
Currants are the crown jewels of the fruit world—glistening, translucent bunches of fruit hanging on grape-like pendulums known as strigs. The sweet-tart fruits can’t be beat for fresh eating or for jellies, jams and juices. Currants are winter hardy, and will grow in most climate zones. They also grow in areas that may be too wet and shady for other fruit.
Currants enjoy a cosmopolitan culinary status beyond fresh eating and are revered by many global kitchens. They may be used to make wine, and black currants are the star of the nutty, clove-like liqueur known as Cassis. Currants are also used in soups, syrups and summer puddings. The fruit offers a balanced mineral and vitamin content with high nutraceutical content. Black currants offer twice the antioxidant content of blueberries, four times the vitamin C of oranges and twice the potassium of bananas. Black currant seed oil is also rich in many nutrients, especially vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and five other essential fatty acids.
For fresh eating, let the berries hang on the strig for about three weeks after they color up. Harvest and enjoy as-is, or add to your yogurt, cereal and salads.
“I never would have sought out the fruit,” says Hilltop CSA member Bridget Holcomb, “but just like so many others, currants showed up in my CSA share and I had to figure out what to do with them. Somewhere between a grape and a cranberry, I now bring them to work to snack on. I’m sure there are all sorts of glazes and jellies and other creative uses for them (I just heard about a cake with white currant frosting), but I’ll stick to eating them fresh!”
Currants are slowly gaining ground in the United States as an important crop for orchards as well as a sought-after fruit for home gardens and kitchens. Yet the current state of currant culture in this country confounds the aspiring orchardist.
European immigrants introduced the fruit to America and it enjoyed considerable popularity for a time, both for its medicinal and culinary merits. The horticultural tide turned in the early 20th century, however, when currants were accused of spreading white pine blister rust, resulting in a federal ban on the import and cultivation of currants. The ban was lifted in 1966, and since then disease resistant cultivars have been bred, but the impact of the ban lingers in some states’ law books as well as in people’s ignorance of the fruit.
This agricultural maelstrom poses a thorny dilemma—to recommend or not recommend currants for cultivation. On our farm, we hope that our experimental approach to production as well as collaborating with other farmers in Wisconsin on developing direct markets for currants will provide useful information for growers and eaters alike.
“We’ve led several orchard tours in the three years since we planted our orchard,” says Hilltop farmer Rob McClure. “The up-and-coming generation of consumers is concerned with the sustainability of what they eat. At the same time, they see family farms disappearing around them. We want to let farmers and consumers know about currants and other well-adapted, potentially high-margin fruits that add to both our farm ecology and food economy. [We also want to] open a wider dialogue with the community about the changing nature of agriculture, its difficulties, and how we need to adapt in the next 10 to 20 years.”
We invite you to adapt and expand your culinary language and include currants in the center of your pantry. May you be inspired to re-think your yogurt, tweak your jam recipes, and re-imagine your backyard landscapes and mealtimes to include the jewel-like currants. And, while you’re at it, please pass the saskatoons.
Three years ago, Hilltop Community Farm, Elsewhere Farm and Mary Dirty Face Farm, who each manage their small, diversified farms in different locations in Wisconsin, discovered that they were growing the same fruits in similar phases of production and were facing the same marketing challenges. Working together, the farms jointly received grant funding to research marketing options for their unusual fruits from the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Farmer Rancher grant program (NC SARE, USDA), with additional support to conduct field days from the Wisconsin Farmers Union Foundation.