He had sold his crop insurance firm and bought a farm outside Bennington, Neb., and Gregg Classen was considering what new fields to plow in life.
Then one of his new neighbors mentioned aronia berries. Classen, like most people, had never heard of the little fruits with the common name black chokeberries, a moniker as unalluring as the Latin aronia melanocarpa is mystifying.
Classen did a little research. The buzz sounded intriguing. Aronia fans believe that the deep purple berries, brimming with antioxidants and other nutrients, could become a hit with consumers hungry for healthier foods. And the plants, native to Iowa and most of the northeastern United States, are relatively easy to grow, making them a natural choice for people seeking alternative crops in these parts.
Pioneering producers had begun growing and promoting aronia in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, most notably Vaughn and Cindy Pittz at Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm outside Missouri Valley, Iowa. An Omaha entrepreneur, Ken Sailors, was among those trying to develop products and cultivate a market.
“Why not?” Classen thought. “Let's get in on the ground level.”
He planted 300 bushes in 2004. This month, Classen expected to begin harvesting berries from 8,500 shrubs on eight acres of a former soybean field. Those berries would be shipped off to be made into such things as fruit chews, juice concentrate, jams, jellies and wines, or sold whole to be eaten frozen or mixed into muffins and pancakes.
Meanwhile, the folks at Sawmill Hollow were preparing not only for the harvest but for their fast-growing annual Aronia Berry Festival, set for Sept. 18 and 19. Last year's event drew about 1,400 people to tour the farm, try Iowa-produced aronia wine, barbecue sauce and other products, and learn about the berry and the movement.
Eastern Nebraska and western Iowa are the epicenter for U.S. domestic aronia production. To be sure, the little berry is still barely a drop in the ocean of food, said Harlan Hamernik, plant conservator and founder of Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Neb.
“You'd have a hard time if you stopped people on the street in Omaha and asked them if they'd heard of aronia,” he said.
But aronia is growing as people like Classen and row-crop farmers, acreage dwellers and sustainable agriculture advocates venture into producing the berries, and as individuals and food companies cook up uses for them.
Fifteen years ago, there were only a couple of aronia growers in the United States, said Eldon Everhart, a former Iowa State University Extension horticulturist. Today, he said, he knows of more than 85 people growing the berries commercially in Iowa and Nebraska, with more scattered in the upper Midwest and the Northeast.
Everhart himself retired from the university and opened a consulting firm based mainly on aronia berries. He said many growers are retired or near retirement. Others are row-crop farmers looking for an additional crop. Some have acreages in the suburbs of cities.
At Sawmill Hollow, twice-monthly workshops attract eight to 10 people a session, in addition to the hundreds who have attended “field days” and festivals. Many of them — the Pittzes wouldn't say how many — have become growers in a producers' network led by Sawmill Hollow.
Westin Foods, a family-owned company based in Nebraska, formed a partnership with Sailors and sells a variety of products online and at Mae's Health and Wellness store in Omaha, among other outlets, said Scott Carlson, Westin's chief executive officer.
“Aronia hasn't been discovered by the general public yet,” he said, but “we are astonished at what we find in terms of the interest and the loyal following of consumers who have begun to add this to their diet.”
Sawmill Hollow also sells its products online and at the Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market, among other locations.
In Clarkson, Hamernik, who handed Bluebird Nursery over to his sons three years ago, has made cultivating and selling aronia plants a focus of his new nursery, called Wild Plums.
Hamernik said he expects to ship out 250,000 aronia plants this year.
“These are people who are thinking ahead,” he said. “They want to get something going that maybe their children can take over and have a profitable investment in.”
If you were to pluck an aronia berry off a bush and eat it, you'd think these people were nuts to invest in the berries as food. They look sort of like blueberries, but they don't taste like them. They're sort of chalky and astringent, not particularly sour, but not really sweet either.
“They're mouth-puckering, like dry wine,” Everhart said.
That's because, like dry wine, aronia berries are loaded with tannins.
They're also loaded with antioxidants, which are believed to prevent cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Research in Eastern Europe, where aronia berries have been cultivated and consumed for more than 50 years, has suggested that they have numerous health benefits.
They have not been studied as much in the United States, although interest is growing, said Suzanne Hendrich, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.
It has been established, she said, that aronia berries are very high in antioxidants.
Of course, so are a lot of other foods — broccoli, blueberries and cranberries, for example. But aronia berries have more than any of those, which means you don't have to eat as much of them to get the benefits, said Andrew Pittz, son of Vaughn and Cindy.
Plus, he said, they're easy to grow locally and can help save small farms and build up local economies. For example, Sawmill Hollow contracts with a winemaker in Indianola, Iowa, to make its aronia wine, and a tea-maker in Fremont, Neb., to make its aronia tea.
Aronia makes tasty products, its supporters say.
At Classen's farm last week, he opened a deep freeze, stuck in a red plastic cup and fished out a batch of purple berries. He eats a couple of handfuls of frozen berries each day, he said. Eaten frozen, they aren't pucker-uppers.
He also plunked onto the table a bag of fruit snacks and a bottle of aronia juice concentrate. Classen said he drinks a couple of ounces of the juice daily mixed with skim milk and apple juice. He also mixes a smoothie he calls a “quasi-purple julius,” with milk, orange juice and aronia concentrate.
Aronia berries are not profitable yet, Classen said. He worries a little that they could be the next emu, a food fad that fizzled. But he, like other growers, is investing in hopes that aronia berries will grow on the buying public.
“It's great to be in on the ground floor,” he said. “But the difficult part of it is, what do you do until the public is accepting of your product?”
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