Cashing in on some of the identified 2017 consumer food trends favoring purple foods and anti-inflammatory foods could be a way for Crawford County farmers to reinvigorate the agricultural economy.
The trend towards “purple foods” is a consumer trend towards food that provides nutrient density. Foods that are a deep purple color, such as Black Currants and Aronia, are foods that pack a real punch in providing the kinds of healthy – and anti-inflammatory – nutrients that consumers are increasingly seeking out.
From modest beginnings, new superfruit crops such as Aronia and Black Currants are really starting to take off. Both farmer adoption and consumer demand for these crops are growing simultaneously, according to those familiar with the situation.
Aronia is a multi-stemmed shrub similar in appearance to blueberries and currants. It is a native American fruit indigenous to the Great Lakes region, and has recently been discovered to have natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activity. It is a premier, some would say the premier source of antioxidants from a fruit or vegetable.
Antioxidants are organic compounds found in food, especially brightly colored fruits, vegetables and grains. They act to reduce oxidative stress on body tissues, which is a natural byproduct of metabolic function, and are thus anti-inflammatory foods.
The Midwest Aronia Association (MAA) is the organization that more than any other has helped to launch growth of the Aronia industry in the United States, especially in the Midwest.
For years, the MAA has been informally gathering growers together at their annual meeting to hear presentations on cultivation, pest management, and the health benefits of the antioxidant-rich berries. This year’s conference will take place in Nebraska on March 24-25. More details about the conference will be available soon at www.midwestAronia.org.
“I was pleased and surprised when I learned that USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) had received enough National Agricultural Classification Surveys back from farmers listing Aronia as a crop, that they were thinking of breaking it out as a distinct crop in the 2017 Census of Agriculture,” said Roberta Barham, the Midwest Aronia Association (MAA) Board President.
The USDA/NASS’ comunication to the MAA said, “USDA has noticed Aronia listed as an ‘other’ crop on a significant number of surveys. Listing Aronia as its own crop rather than ‘other’ is important for future funding, grant opportunities, etc.”
Growing consumer demand for premium products like pastured meats and nutrient dense, superfood-type crops translates into an opportunity for farmers to command premium prices for their produce.
It takes vision
As with any new enedeavor, there are always visionaries who see the potential. One of these visionary innovators is a man named Dale Secher of Carandale Farm in Oregon, Wisconsin.
Carandale Farm is the longest established pick-your-own farm in Dane County, providing pick-your-own and retail fruits and vegetables to the area since 1969.
In 2002, Carandale Farm initiated an on-farm trial for screening unknown, little-known and overlooked fruit crops.
Secher’s ‘Uncommon Fruit’ website says of Aronia, “As a native species, it has proven to be adaptable to the region. It has co-evolved in our region and is not an invasive threat. Aronia does not appear to have any significant disease or insect pest issues, and is fruitful even with minimal fertility input. Projected yields for the cultivar ‘Viking’ reached full production by year five.”
More information about the Secher’s 14-year trial, and the dozens of “uncomon fruit” he’s experimented with is available at http://uncommonfruit.cias.wisc.edu/ . The site is hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.
Growing the market
One company that is helping Aronia farmers bring their berries to market is National Aronia Growers (NAG).
Initially formed in 2011 to bring Aronia growers together for aggregation and marketing, the company’s efforts have really taken off since the demise of an Aronia cooperative in 2016, which left growers with fruit struggling to find a market.
NAG now works with Aronia growers in 10 states and Canada, and expects another 2,000 acres to go into production by 2018.
“We’re in the business of helping Aronia farmers grow the highest quality ‘Product of U.S.A.’ fruit, providing aggregation services, and helping farmers by bringing Aronia products to market,” says NAG’s owner, Tony Heisterkamp.
NAG has currently launched several Aronia berry juice blends, which are sold at stores all across the Midwest. Their Aronia Green Tea, Aronia Apple, and Aronia Cocktail juices are made from juice and not from concentrate. They also do ‘direct-to-consumer’ sales nationally, and even internationally.
“In February, NAG will also be launching into the neutraceutical business for Aronia health supplements,” Heisterkamp said. “We’re ready to go with label and marketing claims to bring the tremendous health benefits of Aronia to consumers in the supplements industry.”
Heisterkamp reported that the group will launch a website in February that will help farmers and consumers connect with all the opportunities for farm income and consumer health benefits.
For growers interested in exploring a market for their Aronia berries, Tony Heisterkamp can be reached by e-mail at nationalAroniagrowers@gmail.com, or by phone at 712-540-0127.
Serving the industry
As more and more growers have been attracted to Aronia as a commercial crop with potential, the need has arisen for crucial services such as sourcing plants, planting, and harvesting the berries.
Dean Mangrich and Donna Costello got into the custom planting and harvesting side of the Aronia business very early in the game.
Their business, Aronia Berry Services, located in Northeast Iowa, offers Aronia plants, and custom planting and harvesting.
Their journey into growing Aronia berries started in early March of 2011. While driving, Mangrich was listening to an agricultural radio show that was talking about this new berry that people were starting to raise with incredible health benefits.
They attended a meeting of the MAA in April of 2011 to learn more about the berry, and found the conference “very informational.”
In October of that year, they planted 2,500 plants on 10 acres, after lots of research and field preparation.
Initially, they adapted a tree planter with the help of a local blacksmith in order to plant Aronia plants, and from there, Aronia Berry Services was born.
In 2013, the couple decided that since Poland has become the ‘Aronia Berry Capital of the World,’ despite Aronia being native to North America, they should take a trip there to see how the Poles did things.
They visited several “plantations,” as Aronia farms are called there, and saw impressive family operations of 400 acres or more, where every aspect of the business was well developed.
From contacts developed during their visit in Poland, they have upgraded their original adapted tree planter to state of the art planting and harvesting equipment developed in that country.
The couple has become an American dealer for Weremczuk Aronia Berry Harvesters, and is deeply involved in the growing Aronia industry in the upper Midwest.
In 2016, Mangrich updated his Aronia and Currant harvester from a “half-row” harvester to a “whole-row” harvester. They have also obtained a new Italian planter, which allows them to lay down row cover and a drip line, and then plant by punching through the landscape cloth laid down over the prepped beds.
“This is a great breakthrough,” Mangrich said, “because it solves the weed problem that has been such a challenge for growers from day one.”
“Demand for planting of Aronia has really increased in the last few years,” Mangrich said.
He noted that when they started, they were planting a lot of half-acre and one-acre plots, but in the last two years that has shifted upward to 5, 10, 20 and even 100-acre plots.
“As of 2016, Aronia Berry Services has planted more than 800,000 plants and we expect to put in between 500-600,000 more plants in 2017,” Mangrich reported. “Going in to spring of 2017, our services and plant inventory is already sold out, but interested growers could contact us now for fall 2017 plantings.”
Supply of plants
“The supply of plants is currently the main constraint to growing the acres of Aronia,” Heisterkamp explained. “We need to invigorate this aspect of the industry to take it to the next level.”
There are different options for Aronia plants. In Crawford County, Star Valley Flowers sells bare root plants that are either one or two years old. The business got into Aronia cuttings very early in the game and has become known as a supplier of quality plants.
However to be used in planters like Mangrich’s Italian all-in-one planter, the plants have to be grown in soil plugs that can be used with the machine.
“I work with my plant growers and the farmers looking to plant, and try to make it all work together for the upcoming planting season,” Mangrich explained.
Currants on the rise
Black Currants, while not as high in antioxidants as Aronia, are another superfruit plant that has great market potential.
Wandy Peralta is a local Crawford County grower that has been steadily planting acres of Black Currants on his farm near Wauzeka. Each year, Peralta takes cuttings and starts plants to plant on his farm, but also for sale to farmers interested in planting.
“I am a big fan of Aronia,” says Peralta, “but Black Currants are truly a great source of healthy nutrients as well. They’re a great source not only of antioxidants, but also potassium, Vitamin-C, and some B-vitamins.”
To inquire about Black Currant plants for 2017, Peralta can be reached at 608-379-3099.
Marketing the berries
From observations of product offerings and product information, the large Polish growers seem to bring as many or more new food items to market made with Black Currants as they do with items made from Aronia.
One reason for this may be that, from a fresh berry standpoint, the Black Currant is slightly better tasting. Also, marketers may have an easier time bringing a berry more people are familiar with to market.
The path to creating widespread consumer awareness of Aronia will require an investment of time and money, though it is already happening. Marketing Aronia is in some ways a “marketer’s dream,” allowing those coveted superlative claims of “the highest” or “the most” when it comes to describing the antioxidant content of the berries.
The large Polish growers are benefitting from their many years in the business and their volume of production. At this point, they are ahead of the American growers who are working to bring ‘Grown in the USA’ berries to market. Their conclusion seems to have been that it makes sense to bring products made from both berries to market, to fully capture the potential of consumer demand for these “purple foods.”