Is it time to start commercially growing aronia in this area? John Zehrer, owner of Star Valley Flowers, and some of his friends and associates believe it is.
Zehrer, who grows 150 acres of shrubs and perennials for the cut flower industry on his rural Soldiers Grove farm, became interested in aronia quite a few years ago. Five years ago, he planted an acre of the crop to see what growing it would be like. He wondered if it might have potential as an addition to his specialty-cut flower business. It didn’t work out that way.
When he tried to sell some of the plants, he met Dale Secher, the owner of Carandale Farms and a major proponent of aronia and lots of other uncommon fruit. Secher explained to Zehrer the potential of aronia as a fruit crop.
Zehrer kept growing his acre of aronia. Then, last year he assisted another grower with a planting of 30 acres, which he and his crew continue to manage. Next year, Zehrer plans to plant 10 to 15 more acres of aronia.
The experienced local grower’s short answer is that it’s “a super fruit.” That’s a reference to aronia’s extremely high antioxidant level. Antioxidants are substances found in certain food that are believed to fight cancer, coronary heart disease and possibly other diseases in the human body. Aronia’s antioxidant content is high enough to place it at the very top in ORAC levels, the ultimate measure of a fruit’s antioxidant properties. Aronia’s ORAC level is far above the levels found in blueberries and pomegranates. It’s ORAC level is also far beyond the açai berry and even above elderberries and black currants.
A plant native to North American and particularly the northern United States, aronia has some other favorable characteristics. As a wild-growing plant, it has developed truly great disease and pest resistance. It also produces a truly tremendous amount of fruit per acre—far more than most crops like blueberries, raspberries, and other well-known crops.
The downside might be that aronia is not really a fresh fruit crop. Due to its very high level of tannins, the flavor of fresh aronia is very astringent. Cooking changes the flavor to something much more palatable as does mixing it with other fruit juices. Star Valley Flower manager Phil Mueller, a member of the Midwest Aronia Association, pointed out that raw cranberries are not usually eaten either and yet lots of cranberries are consumed in the United States.
Secher agrees eating aronia as fresh fruit is not recommended, but thinks it makes an excellent value-added crop-either mixed with other juices or cooked.
The uncommon crop expert likes aronia for lots of reasons starting with its off-the-charts nutritional value. However, he’s as quick to point out its environmental benefits as a crop that will grow well in small hilly fields that might be prone to erosion if planted in commodity row crops. And, there’s a great economic benefit for inexperienced fruit growers—it’s easy to grow compared with the management practices needed to propagate most fruit crops. In fact with strong pest and disease resistance, it’s easier grow organically than most fruits. Secher calls it “grower friendly.”
While aronia has yet to gain popularity in the United States, it has been imported to Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe where it is being grown in abundance. In fact, when aronia is found in the United States its origin is always Eastern Europe. A fruit drink called Ar? is made in Arizona but the aronia berries used to make it come from Europe.
Secher noted that aronia is a little known additive to juice drinks often used because of it’s strong dark color. He went on to explain a fruit juice drink advertising its raspberry ingredients might contain lots of Chinese-made apple juice concentrate, some raspberries and aronia for the color.
Zehrer, Mueller, Secher and the Midwest Aronia Association are inviting anyone who wants to know about the crop to attend a field day on Saturday, Aug. 24 from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Star Valley Flowers, located at 51468 County C in rural Soldiers Grove. The cost to MAA Members is $20 and it’s $40 for non-members. Lunch will be provided.
At the field day, Zehrer and Mueller will be sharing lessons from over 25 years of growing woody shrubs for the cut flower industry. There will be tours of aronia fields in various stages of growth and participants will be able to see equipment being used to manage the plants at different stages from cuttings to pruning.
Dale Secher will share information from his “uncommon fruit research” and the new website he has developed for the UW-Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.
A highlight of the field day will be demonstrations of a mechanical harvester similar to a blueberry harvester produced by BEI International. Cultivation with the use of Weed Badger will also be demonstrated.
BEI sales representative Rod Marlowe explained the company, based in South Haven, Michigan, has modified a blueberry harvester by adding a longer conveyor system to create an aronia harvester. He noted the company custom builds all the machines.
Marlowe emphasized the cost of machine-picked fruit in either blueberries or aronia is drastically less than the cost of handpicked fruit. He estimated aronia can be picked for 10 to 15 cents per pound with a BEI harvester which straddles the row and uses nylon rods to vibrate the plants a loosen the aronia which falls onto the conveyors. Marlowe estimated the cost of handpicked aronia at 50 to 75 cents per pound.
“In some areas where aronia is growing, there is no labor,” Marlowe said. A new harvester can cost from $50,000 to $70,000.
Post harvest handling and processor requirements will also be discussed at the field day, according to the organizers.
Anyone interested in attending the MAA Wisconsin Field Day is asked to RSVP with Star Valley Flowers’ Phil Mueller at phil@starvalley flowers.com or by calling 608-735-4100. Those with questions are also invited to contact Phil by email or phone.