Northern fruit farmers fill niche: Boreal Berry Farm and Winery lands Metro contract.

AuthorKelly, Lindsay

In his early days as a fruit farmer, Greg Melien prefaced every public tour of his Warren-area farm explaining just what, exactly, a haskap berry is.

Resembling an elongated grape, the cold-tolerant fruit was, at that time, a rare sight on most grocery store shelves, and few were familiar with its tart, blueberry-raspberry flavour.

But nearly a decade on, the fruit's popularity has skyrocketed, and the cobalt-coloured berry is hitting its stride as a tasty, vitamin-rich alternative to more traditional varieties.

"It's really started to hit the mainstream, which is nice to see," Greg said.

That's good news for Greg and his wife, Mira, who together own and operate the Boreal Berry Farm and Winery, about 40 minutes east of Sudbury.

There, the couple grow, harvest, package and freeze several types of berry-haskap, lingonberry, sea buckthorn, aronia, and Saskatoon among them. Twelve products are available in total, including two berry blends, which are shipped frozen to grocers provincewide.

Close to 100 stores across Ontario now carry the Meliens' all-organic fruit, including several independent banners.

A big break came last August when the couple signed a distribution agreement with the Quebec-based grocery chain Metro, which now stocks eight of the Meliens' products in 18 stores across Ontario.

"If there's a Metro store between Barrie and Thunder Bay, we're in it," Greg said.

The Meliens have been frequent participants in the Northern Ontario Pavilion at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, where thousands of visitors are introduced to their unique fruit wines, jams and dessert toppers.

When Metro representatives approached the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs with a request to connect them with Ontario producers, the Meliens were selected for an interview, and the agreement rolled out from there.

The grocery behemoth zeroed in on the Meliens' ability to produce distinct fruits that aren't easily acquired elsewhere, Greg said, while customers appreciate the fact they can enjoy fresh, locally produced fruit even in the off-season.

"People are very excited to see Ontario fruit on the shelves year-round," Mira said. "That's the biggest feature."

To meet the growing demand for their products, change is ongoing at the fresh-fruit enterprise, which the Meliens launched in 2011.

Situated on an old Finnish homestead that dates back more than eight decades, the operation is organic, sustainable, and biodynamic.

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