Modern Farmer

By Shelby Vittek  - Author at Modern Farmer

How one Hudson Valley grower helped overturn a nearly century-old ban on black currants.

Greg Quinn was instrumental in getting a ban lifted of the commercial cultivation of currants in New York State.

Hudson Valley fruit farmer Greg Quinn and his then-fiancée Carolyn Blackwood had no prior experience in agriculture when they bought an old dairy farm in 1999. But the couple knew enough to focus on growing a profitable specialty crop.

“I was looking for something other than the typical corn and apples and hay,” says Quinn, a culinary and horticulture expert who previously taught at the New York Botanical Garden for 25 years. He began visiting nearby farms, hoping to identify a fruit or vegetable the region was lacking. “I was looking for that niche crop,” he says.

During a visit to a local winery, Quinn tasted its batch of cassis, a sweet, dark red liqueur made from black currants, a berry that’s high in antioxidants and rich in vitamins. The vintner told him it was a hassle to make, since he was required to source the fruit from Canada due to an archaic law that made black currants illegal to grow in the United States.

“That’s when a little bulb went off,” says Quinn, who remembered the beautiful black currant plants that grew behind a restaurant where he once worked in Bavaria, Germany. He was intent on cultivating the forbidden fruit on his farm and bringing domestically grown black currants back to America. But first he needed to find a way to do so legally.

Black currants are ubiquitous in many parts of the world—especially in Eastern Europe—where the succulent berry is used to make jams, jellies, syrups, candies and liqueurs. In the UK and Australia, the fruit is so prevalent that the purple Skittle flavor there is black currant, not grape, as it is here in the United States. Black currant is also the most common flavor descriptor associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, a popular red grape variety that makes up part of the blend in red Bordeaux wines. But ask your average American what a black currant tastes like or task them with identifying the fruit by sight and they’ll likely respond with a shrug.

That’s because its cultivation was banned for nearly a century, causing generations of Americans to go without hearing of the fruit or seeing it grow in their backyards or on farms. The prohibition dates back to the early 1900s, when a deadly fungal disease called blister rust arrived from Europe and began killing white pine trees, then the backbone of the country’s timber industry. The burgeoning logging industry put pressure on lawmakers to take action and eliminate currants, which were an intermediate host of white pine blister rust. In 1911, Congress passed a law that made it illegal to grow currants, and the once-popular fruit quickly disappeared from American diets and memories.

By 1966, new disease-resistant varieties of currants had been developed and the federal government relaxed its ban, turning it over to states to enforce or lift their bans. Yet many states—New York included—maintained them.

Black currants might still be illegal to grow today if it weren’t for Quinn, who found the still-existing ban to be outrageous. “White pines are certainly not the favored trees they once were…They’re not used as Christmas trees or grown for lumber any longer,” he says. “I thought that if I could in fact change the law, I’d not only have this cool, unique crop but what a great story.”

So, in 2002, Quinn confirmed with researchers at Cornell University that black currants could, in fact, be grown safely. Then he began driving up to Albany once a week to see if he could get in to talk to legislators about lifting the currant ban.

“I’d bring up a box of danishes and give them to the law clerks and the secretaries and ask them to sneak me in if there was a cancellation,” says Quinn. On the times he was welcomed in, the politicians would ask how big the black currant market was and how many farmers were involved and then ultimately dismiss Quinn’s requests when realizing no such market existed yet.