Harvesting Sea Buckthorn fruit is no easy task, as anyone who’s involved with Sea Buckthorn can tell you. Why is it so difficult? Well, mainly due to the plant itself. Sea Buckthorn trees produce abundant berries—a mature female tree can produce up to 15 kilos of fruit!—and these berries are very tightly bunched along the branches. In fact, they’re so tightly bunched that it can be difficult to even get your fingers between them to pick them without crushing them. And the berries have very strong stems, which means it takes some effort to pull them off the branch. And finally, Sea Buckthorn isn’t called Sea BuckTHORN for nothing—the trees have large, needle-sharp thorns hiding all along the branches, waiting to stab your fingers as you try to pick their fruit!
So how do you harvest the fruit? Well, a number of different methods have been tried around the world, with varying degrees of success, from ‘gently shaking’ the tree by hand (good luck getting the berries to fall off without shaking so hard that the tree is damaged!) to ‘combing’ the branches with a hand-held berry comb (originally used to collect wild blueberries) to try to brush the berries off—again, unsuccessful because the berries are so tightly bunched that the comb can’t get between them to brush them off without crushing them. Several high-tech machines have even been developed to try to facilitate the process, from a sort of berry vacuum, which was designed to suck the berries off the branches like a vacuum, to a tree shaker, which attached to the tree and caused the tree to vibrate in the hopes that the berries would be shaken off. Neither machine was particularly effective, and the latter proved too damaging to the tree.
Other more successful and less damaging harvesting methods which are currently in use in Canada include hand-picking and the cut-and-freeze method. Though each has pros and cons, they’re both more effective and far less damaging to the fruit and trees than the sucking, combing or shaking methods. Mont Echo’s Sea Buckthorn supplier orchards utilize hand-picking, the cut-and-freeze method, or a combination of the two to harvest the fruit each summer.
So what are hand-picking and the cut-and-freeze method? Hand-picking is just what it sounds like—picking the berries by hand. It’s very, very time-consuming (it can take one person all day to harvest the fruit from one mature tree) and pickers must contend with the trees’ thorns, but there is very little waste and no damage to the tree. The cut-and-freeze method, on the other hand, involves cutting selected berry-laden branches and immediately freezing them. Once the branches are frozen, they can be easily stripped of their berries. In Quebec, a special harvesting machine designed to strip the frozen berries from the cut branches is shared by the members of the Quebec Sea Buckthorn Growers Association. During the harvesting season, the machine is transported from farm to farm. The cut-and-freeze method is growing in popularity, especially for larger orchards where hand-picking is simply not feasible. It is far less time-consuming than hand-picking, has minimal waste, and if done correctly, can even benefit the trees since the trees require fairly aggressive pruning to promote proper growth. However, growers must have access to a large-scale freezer facility to store the frozen branches, and full harvests can only be carried out every two years to give the trees adequate time to recover. Therefore, the method is only useful for higher volume orchards, with enough trees to enable the grower to alternate fields to be harvested.
At our orchards in Sutton, we’ve just begun our harvest this week. We’ll be combining hand-picking and the cut-and-freeze method for this first time this year. In the past, we’ve relied solely on hand-picking, but this year our harvest will be too large to collect solely by hand-picking.
Think you’d like to try hand-picking some Sea Buckthorn? Well, this year, we’re inviting the public to come and see our orchards on special Orchard Tours during our Harvest Festival. Some tours feature berry-picking, so it’s your chance to experience the Harvest first-hand!