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Do you have tips on growing elderberries and aronia?


Adding a plant like elderberry or aronia to your farm can seem like a great idea. For organic growers, these crops have many advantages: They are inexpensive to establish and well-suited to cold climates, as well as resilient in hot and dry summers; they experience very little disease, and have few problem pests; and of course, they are famed for their high nutritional value, which research supports.

There are also some downsides to growing these crops. Mechanized harvest is not easily available, and extremely expensive. For most growers, the only real option is hand harvesting. This can be very time consuming, expensive, or both. Be sure to consider the dates of harvest, and how the labor of picking berries will fit into your season.

While these fruits are rarely bothered by insect pests, deer and birds can be problem predators. Elderberries, in particular, will require protection. For deer, that can be a simple fence, which you may already have on your property. Bird protection usually involves netting that must be removed each season. Netting for very large areas will be expensive. Some growers have luck with auditory devices for scaring away birds, or visual deterrents, but these are less dependable than netting.

While elderberry and aronia may be more reliable in production than other fruits, markets may be considerably less reliable. There seems to be a growing industry in processing and using them, as well as some exciting examples of “Super Fruit” products. In our region, there are a few groups, like aggregators and cooperatives, who buy directly from farmers to either create products or sell to someone who does.

Questions to ask an aggregator or cooperative include: How much can you accept? Is there a product minimum? When will I get paid? What kind of preparation is required?

When getting into a growing industry, there can be a lot of uncertainty. Elderberries and aronia can be difficult to sell fresh or direct to consumers. It’s important when you start a relationship with a buyer that you both set clear expectations. It can be difficult to accurately forecast a perennial crop. While many growers value these berries for their adaptability, the amount of care you give them will impact when you see a full harvest. Aronia, for example, can grow well without mulch and irrigation but will set more fruit faster when mulched and irrigated. When working with a potential buyer, make sure you understand the amount they’re looking for—both the minimum and the maximum—and that they understand your expected crop load.

Some aggregators do not pay growers until they have collected enough berries to sell or process a set amount—usually a very large set amount. This means a delay in getting a payment, which you need to factor into your cash flow for the year. You still have to get those berries picked, whether the labor is your own or hired.

Growers are often required by processors or third parties to completely prepare the berries. In the case of elderberries, this means separating the berries, which are quite small, from their clusters and stems. (The stems and leaves of elderberries contain a mild toxin.) This also may mean freezing the berries, holding them in the freezer, and even transporting them frozen. All of this preparation requires time and equipment that must be factored in when planting; so it’s important to be clear about these requirements.

As a specialty crop farmer, I appreciate seeing people all over the country start to recognize the health benefits of nutrient-rich food. It’s easy to get excited about the growth of this sector, and the possibilities for us growers. As with any type of farming, it’s essential to go into unusual fruit production with a solid plan and realistic expectations.

Posted: Dec 2018
Answer By: Rachel Henderson