CURRANT EVENTS

ONCE-FORBIDDEN FRUIT HERALDED AS A GOOD CASH CROP IN NEW YORK

DOUG BLACKBURN STAFF WRITER
Section: Life - Food,  Page: D1

Date: Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Greg Quinn is a dreamer. He may turn out to also be a visionary.


Removing a petite, dark purple berry from one of the thousands of black currant bushes he planted three years ago on his farm in Dutchess County, Quinn believes he is holding in his fingers the answer to New York state's sagging agricultural infrastructure. Currants, considered the forbidden fruit after they were banned in the United States in 1911, represent countless possibilities, says Quinn, who hopes to help this country rediscover a fruit that is popular throughout Europe.


The berries that grow in clusters on currant plants the thick, thigh-high bushes are cultivated in rows like grapes, but there are no vines can be used to make beverages, dairy products and desserts. Cassis, the French word for black currants, is a fortified dessert wine.


"Currants are really the first profitable crop to hit New York state in three or four decades," says Quinn, whose lobbying efforts were partly responsible for the 2003 lifting of the currant-growing ban in New York. "I think we have a chance with currants to establish an agricultural product that New York can be identified with the same way Washington is synonymous with apples and Idaho with potatoes."


Quinn is wasting no time cashing in with currants.


In late April he came out with a high-end currant beverage, CurrantC, that he boasts has twice the antioxidants of blueberries and four times the vitamin C of oranges.


A 16-ounce bottle of CurrantC sells for $3.99 and Quinn hopes it will follow the path blazed by POM-Wonderful, the similarly priced pomegranate juice drink that rang up $70 million in sales last year. An intensely rich, semi-tart beverage, CurrantC is already in about 500 stores in eight states.


Quinn's two sons, Ryan and Gabriel, the Au Currant company's sales force thus far, are adding new accounts almost daily. A low-calorie version is scheduled to be released soon, to be followed by dozens of currant products such as yogurt.





Currants, commonplace in Europe, were outlawed in this country when it was believed the bushes carried white pine blister rust, a disease that was threatening to wipe out a staple of the timber industry. The federal government overturned the ban in the late 1960s, leaving it up to individual states to decide if they would permit currant-growing.


"The disease potential always exists, but we understand now that white pine blister rust doesn't necessarily equal the death of white pines," says Steven McKay, an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Columbia County. "We know now it's a lot more complicated than that.


"We have immune varieties of black currants we're planting now that don't carry the disease," adds McKay, who has worked closely with Quinn. "The disease cycle and the ecology is a lot more complicated than people like to recognize."


New York did not take up the issue until Quinn made it his personal mission. He is believed to be New York's lone currant farmer, a status he expects will change as soon as this fall.


He has fielded hundreds of calls about currants and has established a management company to help landowners and farmers grow currants. Two clients, both in Dutchess County, have asked him to oversee currant production on their properties beginning this fall.


Tart taste


Currants, a member of the Ribes family and a first cousin of gooseberries, are the size of peas. They are tart when eaten raw, more like a lemon than a grape or blackberry. Chefs are most likely to use a clump of raw currants to decorate a dish.


For CurrantC, the juice Quinn makes at Nelson Farms in Morrisville, he uses a blend of concentrated currant juice Quinn imports from Europe and Canada and sweetens it with cane sugar. A small amount of currant juice from his Dutchess County farm, Walnut Grove Farm in Clinton Corners, also goes into each batch of CurrantC.


Like grapes, there are dozens of varieties of currants. They come in a host of colors, including red, white, pink and black.


"The big gun in terms of marketing is the black currants," Quinn says. "They're the healthiest of the group. Studies in Europe have shown black currants lower blood pressure, reduce skin ailments and alleviate eye problems, among other benefits."


For Quinn, establishing New York state's first currant farm is akin to a personal perfect storm. It taps into many of the 54-year-old's talents. The one-time restaurateur is best known as a horticulturalist. He teaches classes at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx.


He's also media savvy. He's been the on-camera garden expert for Fox News in New York and for a number of years was the garden guru on "B. Smith With Style."


He moved from Manhattan to Dutchess County six years ago. When he bought the 140-acre Walnut Grove Farm he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with the land. A conversation with Ben Feder, who owns nearby Clinton Vineyards, inspired Quinn to plant currants. Feder makes cassis, but has to import the black currant juice.


"I don't come at this thing so much as a farmer as a marketer. I understand all food, I understand gourmet food," Quinn says. "I understand you can sell a baby carrot for five bucks to the Waldorf Astoria, if you market it right. I'm exaggerating, of course, but not much.


"There's an emerging market for high-end juices, especially high health-content juices. POM-Wonderful did to the juice business what Starbucks did for the coffee business. I think if my first product would have been a low-end juice drink it would have gotten buried on the shelves. At this high price, this stuff is selling."


Everyday drink


Allyn Brown planted currants five years ago at his berry farm in southeastern Connecticut, Maple Lane Farms. He makes a perishable currant juice that sells for $3.59 for a plastic, half-gallon container, considerably less than CurrantC.


"I wanted to make it more of an everyday drink. We have plans to do some blends. I like it blended with orange juice," says Brown, whose currant drink is in most Price Chopper stores. "It's not a mainstream item, at least at this point. It's kind of a slow-go now because we're educating the consumer, unless you find yourself in a community of European transplants."


Quinn agrees that the first step on the road to winning over the public is to increase awareness about currants. Americans are most familiar with dried currants, which in actuality are tiny raisins made from black grapes.


"Most people don't know what currants are," Quinn says. "They think they're raisins.


"This is so brand new, it's like a blank canvas. My plan is to have the New York currant be the standard by which all U.S. currants are judged. I think this is really going to explode and increase exponentially. I can hear the rumble of my competition behind me."





Doug Blackburn can be reached at 454-5759 or by e-mail at dblackburn@timesunion.com.


CURRANTC SITES CurrantC is sold throughout the Hudson Valley. It is available in Columbia County at Nola Bakery and Cafe in Hudson and at Our Daily Bread in Chatham. Greg Quinn expects his company's flagship product soon will be available at numerous markets in the Capital Region.