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 speciality 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.
“I can almost remember walking down the halls of the legislative office building and hearing doors closing and locks ticking,” says Quinn. “It was like they were saying ‘Here comes this crazy currant guy again. I’m not home.’”
After a couple of months of weekly visits, Quinn got a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who covered Albany and was interested in writing about “the nutty currant guy.” The story ran on the front page of the newspaper. Soon after, Quinn got a call from the late New York State Senator William Larkin, who sat on the agricultural committee and was interested in hearing more. Together over the next six months, they crafted new legislation that would overturn the ban.
In April 2003, the first vote in the New York State Senate on the new bill to legalize the commercial cultivation of currants passed unanimously. The following week, the Assembly voted unanimously to adopt the new law. Governor George Pataki signed the bill into law five months later, overturning the nearly 100-year-old ban.
Riding the high from his victory, Quinn set out to reintroduce the black currant to American palates, but he soon realized how big of a challenge that was going to be. “There was just no model here in the United States for it,” he says. And, unlike açai or pomegranate, he didn’t have a marketing budget big enough to get black currants on consumers’ radars.
To learn more about black currant farming, Quinn visited 14 different countries where currants are grown, including Poland, the second-largest producer of black currants in the world. He launched CurrantC, through which he develops, markets and sells black currant products. At one point, he sold a bottled black currant juice concentrate in 4,000 grocery stores, but that changed when the 2008 recession hit and wiped out much of his business, forcing him to shift to an e-commerce model, a relatively new idea at the time.
But Quinn never gave up on his black currants. He still has around 50 acres planted with black currants, which he sells to local cideries, wineries and other small food business owners who make products that wouldn’t be possible without his earlier efforts to overturn the ban.
One of Quinn’s beloved buyers is Rachael Petach, an artist who started experimenting with making her own cassis after falling for the spirit while working on an organic farm in France years earlier. Quinn’s black currants form the base of Current Cassis, the liqueur that Petach launched last December after several years of working with different flavors and tweaking recipes in her home kitchen. “He’s the guy, basically, when you start looking online for where to get black currants,” she says. “There’s a smattering of other family farms, but no one’s really repping [black currants] in the same way.”
Nearly 20 years after the ban was lifted, black currant production is still relatively limited. Quinn continues to push the health benefits of black currants to consumers and talks to farmers about the merits of growing them. There are now black currant growers in other states that have lifted the ban—including New York, Oregon, Illinois and Minnesota—who commercially grow the once-forbidden berries. The ban still remains on the books in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia and West Virginia. In some places, like Michigan, a permit is required to plant black currants anywhere in the state.
More recently, Quinn has devoted his attention to importing and cultivating different Polish varieties. And while overturning the ban was a memorable victory, his greatest joy has been watching Polish, Slavic and Russian families being able to enjoy a treasured culinary tradition again.
“When they hear about [our] black currants, they swoon,” he says. “Food is just one of those touchstones. If you want to reconnect with something from your homeland, few things are more poignant than food.”