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Aronia: Iowa’s native super fruit

By Staff | Apr 15, 2011

Lori Pfeifer, with Wild Plums nursery, in Nebraska, stands beside containers of aronia plants during the Midwest Aronia Association conference held Saturday in Des Moines.

By Dave DeValois

Farm News staff writer

DES?MOINES – Aronia shrubs, and the small, dark blue berry it produces are not a household name for most Iowa consumers.

But 300 or so Iowans and other Midwesterners are trying to change that.

Aronia is a native Iowa plant which produces a berry that some call a “super berry” because of its healthful qualities, including the highest level of antioxidants of any fruit.

“We’re providing something that actually helps people. This is something that they need and is really good for them.” —Kevin Bailey President, Midwest Aronia Association

Aronia shrubs are planted as plugs spaced 7 feet apart and grow together over several years.

Established aronia growers, as well as many prospective growers, converged in the state’s capital last week for a two-day conference that organizers hope will spread their passion for the healthy fruit and help develop markets for aronia berries, jams, wines and other products in Iowa and across the Midwest.

Last week’s gathering attracted attendees from throughout Iowa as well as Canada, New York, Maryland and Texas, according to Kevin Bailey, of Granger, the newly elected president of the Midwest Aronia Association. That attendance was about 50 percent larger than anticipated, Bailey said.

So far, Bailey grows just a few hundred aronia plants but he’s making plans to expand his crop to several acres and several hundred additional plans on land owned by family in Warren and Madison counties.

He’ll continue working full time as a salesman for an electronic communications company but hopes to enhance his income as an aronia grower.

What’s the interest?

Bailey said he got hooked after hearing about aronia from a customer through his full-time job and learning about its healthy qualities.

“We’re providing something that actually helps people. This is something that they need and is really good for them,” Bailey said. “You can truly see the benefit you’re doing for people.”

Aronia growers are trying to work cooperatively on developing markets for the berries and related products, Bailey said. For now, most growers plan to sell the aronia berry itself, either fresh or frozen.

“Almost everybody in the organization is going for organic certification,” which prohibits chemical application of pesticides or herbicides

In the future, the Midwest Aronia Association may work cooperatively to attract a commercial food processor, Bailey said, but for now the organization needs to find out how much product will be available.

Joe Hannan, a commercial horticulture field specialist for Iowa State University Extension, said aronia shrubs are an ideal crop to grow in Iowa because they don’t have insect and disease problems and are tolerant of Iowa’s climate.

“It handles anything from somewhat drought to somewhat wet conditions,” Hannan said. “It’s something that should be very, very easy to grow.”

The main pest concerns are rabbits and deer; they’re attracted to aronia as new plugs and as young plants.

Jonathan Smith, founder of Alpine Foods, a commercial fruit processor, was among the speakers at the conference on Saturday. He said aronia berries should be marketed primarily for their healthy qualities.

“They have the highest antioxidant capacity of any fruit. That’s the home run that I see,” Smith said. “I think it’s a new super fruit with a lot of potential.”

The biggest challenge in marketing aronia berries is their tart taste, he said. “I’ve been told time and time again, it has to taste good,” Smith said. That means a sweetener of some kind may need to be added, or aronia will be promoted as an additional ingredient for other fruit juices.

Charlie Caldwell, immediate past president of the Midwest Aronia Association, operates Black Squirrel Vineyard and Winery in Council Bluffs and also grows aronia.

He harvested an acre of berries last year and will expand to six acres by 2012. (Aronia shrubs do not produce fruit until the third growing season).

Caldwell markets aronia berries primarily as a whole berry to health food stores and other retailers in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area. He doesn’t see the taste as a major marketing hurdle for consumers interested in aronia.

“They are not sweet, but the taste – it’s a mindset,” Caldwell said. People eat aronia berries in spite of the taste because of the nutritional qualities, he said.

Caldwell said he’s heard people talk about aronia berries helping them overcome many health conditions.

“I hear people say all the time, ‘I haven’t felt this good in a long time,'” Caldwell said.

Growing something that could improve a person’s health is the main reason he got started.

“If you can help somebody else with a better quality of life instead of spending all this money on health care, wouldn’t that be great?” he said.

Contact Dave DeValois at dwdevalois@yahoo.com.

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