Is This New York's Idaho Potato?; Entrepreneur Has Grand Plans for Black Currants
Greg Quinn thinks he has seen the future, and it is black currants. Millions of them, actually. Enough to save the ailing agricultural industry in New York State, enough to improve the health of the entire nation, enough to give weekend homeowners in the Hudson Valley a tax break and a sense of purpose.
It's a tall order, but Mr. Quinn, a 53-year-old gentleman farmer here in the fertile hills of Dutchess County, believes the black currant is up to the task. ''It's this miraculous little berry that nobody knows about,'' he said from his 1835 farmhouse, after pouring black currant juice into a long-stemmed glass.
The reason black currants never made it to the big time of the berry world here, as they did in Europe, is simple: they were banned nationwide for most of the last century. New York State, where black currants once thrived, declared them a public nuisance in 1911 and outlawed their planting, cultivation, sale and transport.
The concern was the role of black currants in carrying a disease that afflicted white pine trees, called white pine blister rust. But once Mr. Quinn got it into his head that black currants were destined to grow on his 135 acres, the ban was all but history.
''He said, 'We've got to do something,' '' recalled J. Stephen Casscles, counsel to State Senator William J. Larkin Jr., who wrote the bill that overturned the ban last summer. ''He came up here, and he would talk to anybody who would listen.''
In fact, others were already taking a second look at this curiously forbidden fruit in recent years. There were academics at Cornell University who were questioning the scientific foundation of the original ban (it turned out to be more than shaky) and fruit growers who were looking into alternative crops.
But everyone agrees that Mr. Quinn's singular enthusiasm for the black currant kept the pressure on. Now, through his company, Au Currant Enterprises, he is trying to interest farmers and consumers alike in the fruit.
''This plan would get me expelled from every business school in the country,'' he said, ambling alongside rows of young black currant bushes on his property, their small green leaves edged in crimson. ''I have no supply and no market. What an idea!''
But he has already identified 65 food products that use black currants, including juice, jams, candy, yogurt, ice cream and cereal, products he discovered while attending international currant conferences in Finland and Poland in the last two years. He even has a working name for a carbonated black currant drink aimed at teenagers: Electric Currant.
Mr. Quinn is particularly captivated by the health benefits of certain black currant varieties, with twice the antioxidant power of blueberries, four times the vitamin C content of oranges and twice the potassium content of bananas.
Last summer he made his own black currant juice -- a subtly sweet, deep purple nectar -- using some of the 700 hundred pounds of currants he harvested in July, after both houses of the State Legislature voted unanimously to allow black currant production.
A onetime restaurateur who worked for a food importer, Mr. Quinn is compiling 300 recipes that call for currants, including venison with black currants and summer pudding with red currants. (Through the decades, red currants, which were not considered a culprit in white pine blister rust, could be grown in certain districts in New York.)
Mr. Quinn has also registered the name New York Currants with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, hoping that currants will do for New York what potatoes did for Idaho.
And he helped obtain $80,000 in grant money for the Cornell Cooperative Extension to commission a study of the market potential for black currants. The study, conducted by an independent agricultural consulting firm, the Hale Group, predicted that currants could become a $20 million business in New York State and a $1 billion business nationwide.
''That's huge,'' said Mr. Quinn, his bushy eyebrows rising at the thought. ''It validated what I always believed from a marketing standpoint: that this little berry had too much going for it.''
On the supply end, Mr. Quinn is busy, as well. In early October, he planted 2,000 cuttings with the intention of selling the plants to farmers and homeowners next year. He has also set up a management company able to handle all aspects of currant cultivation for owners of second homes interested in reaping an agricultural tax break, along with a few juicy berries.
''I'm talking to six people in Dutchess -- wealthy weekenders and retirees relocating here,'' Mr. Quinn said. ''Virtually everybody who comes up here would like to do something with their land.''
That is how it began for him. Tired of the bustle of Manhattan, Mr. Quinn and his fiancée, Carolyn Blackwood, bought Walnut Grove Farm four years ago. At first, Mr. Quinn was content to savor the rural life: the undulating fields and thickets of pine (where, yes, black currants grew wild), the spring-fed pond out back and the barn with the three bulls the couple inherited.
Then he got restless. ''I wanted to get my hands in the dirt, to create something,'' he said.
Soon after, he was visiting a local winery when the conversation turned to black currants. The vintner was lamenting that he had to import black currants from Canada to make cassis, a liqueur. ''He said he wished he had a local supplier,'' Mr. Quinn recalled. ''I said, 'Ding!' ''
The challenge of the ban seemed to fuel his interest, allowing him to bring his marketing, culinary and horticultural skills to the fray. Mr. Quinn once worked as a landscape designer and appeared on Fox television as the ''Garden Guy.'' He still contributes to a weekly radio program on gardening, and he teaches courses at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Mr. Quinn teamed up with Steven A. McKay, an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Columbia County and an expert on currants and gooseberries. Mr. McKay had himself been examining the ban and talking to state officials about whether it still made sense.
In the early 20th century, it was recognized that black currants served as an intermediate host of blister rust and were thought to pose a serious threat to white pines. But over the years, research showed that the disease occurred primarily when the currants were near the trees and also in moist areas.
''It was a lack of understanding of the life cycle and the ecology of the disease,'' Mr. McKay said of the earlier scientific data. ''We've now developed better ways to grow currants to avoid spread of the disease.''
Since the 1970's, after new black currant varieties that were immune to the disease became available, state officials did not pursue farmers who were growing resistant varieties within special ''fruiting districts,'' Mr. McKay said. Only a handful of farmers grew the resistant varieties, though, in part because the berries had been forgotten after years of banishment.
The new law allows immune varieties to be grown anywhere in the state. It also permits the production of varieties susceptible to the disease -- varieties prized for their flavor and color -- in designated areas. Restrictions on black currant production have been lifted across most of the United States, Mr. McKay said.
Like cranberries, black currants, which are the size of peas, are generally not eaten raw. ''It's puckering,'' Mr. Quinn said, in his one concession to imperfection. ''I actually like the taste of it, but maybe 3 percent of the population will.''
In Mr. Quinn's estimation, if currants ascend to agricultural greatness, and profitability, they could even help check the housing sprawl that is lapping closer and closer to his Hudson Valley hideaway. ''You never bulldoze 100 houses and make a farm,'' he said. ''You bulldoze a farm and make 100 houses. When it's gone, it's gone forever.''