Apr 7, 2007
New Yorker Aims to Restore Currants to Former Glory

Greg Quinn’s overarching goal is to see New York restored to its former position as the nation’s leading state in currant production – and to be a leader in making it happen.

Last May, Quinn’s The Currant Company, Clinton, N.Y., introduced a black currant juice drink to the market. It’s doing pretty well, he said. Called CurrantC, the juice sells for about $4 a 16-ounce bottle. It’s sold in about a thousand stores in 15 states alongside other so-called high-end juice drinks, like POM Wonderful, that are being touted for their high antioxidant levels and other health benefits. Playing with words, CurrantC promises “a wealth of health.”

So far, so good.

But restoring the industry? That’ll take more time.

Quinn planted 9,000 bushes, or nine acres, of currants two years ago ¬– making him New York’s largest grower. That’s just the start of the vision.

“In the late 1800s, New York was the nation’s top currant producer,” he said.

The U.S. industry was sidetracked in 1911 when Congress passed a law making it illegal to grow currants because they were host for a disease that attacked white pine timber. In the 1960s, that federal law was handed over to the states’ jurisdiction.

The ban still stands in several states, but in New York, Quinn, working with others who believe in the future of currants, got the black currant farming ban overturned in 2003. That year, Quinn legally planted currants on the farm he had bought in 1999.

“There’s really been no market in the U.S. until recently,” he said. “You’ll sometimes see red or black currant jelly, but it’s mostly imported.”

In Europe, currants are very popular, and once were in the United States, Quinn said.

Currants grow a lot like blueberries, but are even more restricted in where they’ll grow. Only the northern states can grow them, he said. They are closely related to gooseberries and will cross with them.

Quinn envisions bushes repopulating tens of thousands of acres or more in New York alone.

Quinn is a colorful, well-known figure in New York. A self-taught culinary and horticulture expert, he was “the Garden Guy” on WNYW television for 10 years and now teaches gardening, landscape design and soil science courses at the New York Botanical Gardens in The Bronx. He once owned a restaurant in Bavaria, an area of Europe where currants are widely grown.

Looking for a profitable crop to grow when he bought his farm in 1999, he began working with others in an attempt to bring back the U.S. black currant industry. First, they needed to get the ban lifted in New York if they were to give the state what they call “the first potentially-viable crop to come along in more than a half century.”

Quinn not only received support from New York lawmakers but also scientists from Cornell University and the USDA. They all believe black currants can be planted and cultivated successfully in New York and elsewhere in the United States.

“This little berry may give New York the opportunity to market an agricultural crop as uniquely its own as Idaho potatoes, Iowa pork, Florida oranges and Washington state apples,” Quinn said.

In his area, farmland is being converted to nonfarm uses. Quinn thinks currant farming may appeal to people moving to the area and building homes on what were once working farms. Quinn said his goal is to keep as much Hudson Valley land under cultivation as possible.

He has established a management company to assist landowners who want to have their land cultivated and planted with currants, but don’t necessarily want to become full-time farmers. This is similar to what was done with grapes and wineries on the eastern end of Long Island in the past decade – an area that has become a competitive wine region, he said.

Steven McKay, Extension educator in Columbia County, gives Quinn a lot of credit.

“Much work has gone into planning, making marketing plans, sourcing raw products and developing packaging,” McKay said. “Now the product is on the shelves of commercial outlets and making its way to enthusiastic consumers.

“The nectar is probably some of the best black currant juice that can be found anywhere. I’ve been tasting black currant juices around the world and find this nectar superior due to its pleasing flavor, color and sugar-acid balance. The product is 37 percent juice and contains black currant concentrate, water, cane sugar and a touch of ascorbic acid.

“Taste testings in various parts of the state have shown wide acceptance of the black currant flavor and interest in the nutraceutical benefits of the product.”

Quinn is equally complimentary of McKay. He got a helping hand from Cornell University Extension throughout the development phases of his product, he said. Together, they received $80,000 in small fruits development grants from Grow New York and Northeast SARE.

Quinn doesn’t yet own a processing plant. He and his son, Ryan, who does much of the sales work, hire the services of a juice plant to formulate and bottle CurrantC. Since his plantings are young, he’s using purchased black currant concentrate in addition to his own berries.

This once forbidden fruit is more than a much-needed development for New York farming, Quinn said. It is also the boost Americans need for their diets. The dark-colored berry is jam-packed with antioxidants such as anthocyanins and polyphenols and contains four times the level of Vitamin C as oranges and twice the potassium of bananas, he said. Research shows they help prevent degenerative diseases, slow down the aging process, protect the body’s vision and neurological functions, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure, he said.

You can visit the The Currant Company Web site at www.aucurrant.com.

There are more than 150 species of gooseberries in the world, and hundreds of currants and selected and hybridized cultivars, according to the Web site.

Even though currants and gooseberries are in the same family, they appear quite different. The crosses, called jostaberries, may look like either parent.

Currants grow on a bush that is generally larger than a gooseberry bush, with thicker wood and berries that are, like grapes, borne in bunches called strigs. There are no thorns or spines, and bushes can be spreading or upright. There are two major types of currants, black currants (R. nigrum) and red currants (R. rubrum).

Almost all black currants are processed into juice or products such as syrup, jam, jelly, tea, yogurt, pie fillings, candy, nutraceuticals and wine. The flavor of the fresh black currant is quite tart and strong.

Some black currant cultivars that might be planted include Ben Sarek, Ben Lomond, Ben Alder, Ben Tirran, Titania and Consort.

Red currants are used both fresh and processed in juice, preserves and sauces. Some red currant cultivars that might be planted are Red Lake, Cherry, Redstart, Rovada and Rotet. White currant varieties include Primus, Blanka, White Imperial, Pink Champagne and White Versailles.

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