The elderberry movement
Elderberry flowers blooming in early July catch the morning sun at the University of Missouri’s elderberry research and test plot. Every flower will eventually develop into a dark purple berry.
Marley Magner picks ripe elderberries Aug. 19 at Frank Gordon’selderberry plot in Huntsdale, Mo. Harvesting is a manual, labor-intensive process.
Ripe elderberries glisten in the morning mist, ready to be picked, processed and frozen.
Terry Durham of Hartsburg, Mo., who some have described as the “Johnny Appleseed of elderberries” spends a great deal of time recruiting growers and teaching them how to produce, harvest and market elderberries. He is also the founder of River Hills Harvest, which produces and markets a variety of elderberry juice products.
Jackie Casteel picks elderberries at Gordon’s farm on Aug. 19. In Missouri, elderberries are typically ready for harvest from late July through early September.
Elderberry pickers and processors, from left, Jackie Casteel, Marley Magner and D.J. Burton, place freshly harvested elderberries in a de-stemming machine at River Hills Harvest.
Later in the process, Matt Dibas steams elderberries on Sept. 4 to prepare them for pressing and juicing at Persimmon Hill Farm in Lampe, Mo.
Reta McClenathan pours purified elderberry juice into a sterilized container at Persimmon Hill Farm. The juice is used to create a wide variety of elderberry-based products.
Frank Gordon watches the sun rise over his farm in Huntsdale, Mo. He has nearly3 acres of elderberries, although he is known for his grape production.
Elderberry cultivars bloom in the University of Missouri Agroforestry test plot in Columbia, Mo., in mid-July. The elderberry selections grown here include “Pocahontas,” “Bob Gordon” and “Wyldewood,” each with its own unique traits.
River Hills Harvest horticulture manager Alan Hellandy removes elderflowers from their stems at the processing station in Hartsburg, Mo.
The River Hills product line includes elderberry juice, cordials, syrup, jelly, creamed honey, lemonade, freeze-dried berries and more.
“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”
That was just one of the insults a raucous French soldier levied at King Arthur in the 1975 comedy film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and likely represents the extent of what most of us know about elderberries.
Even just 20 years ago, it would have been difficult to find pure elderberry juice in a farmers market, let alone anywhere else. Now elderberry products seem to be everywhere, including big-box grocery stores. So what’s the deal? Are they merely novelty crops grown in the soil of a faddish, pro-health magic-bullet mania? Or are they the next big thing in value-added agriculture?
Regardless, Missouri is smack dab in the middle of the elderberry movement, spurred on by one of the developing industry’s key players, Terry Durham of Hartsburg, Mo., an American elderberry researcher, promoter and all-round expert. He works to educate those who are interested in investing in elderberry production, giving multiple talks at conferences and symposiums every year, as well as writing and distributing literature about best elderberry farming practices.
Durham justifiably has a vested interest in the success of American elderberry producers. He is one of a relatively small, tight-knit group of elderberry researchers, promoters and educators who lead the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative (MEC). “Our cooperative is made up of growers participating in the growth and development of elderberry cultivation and sale of elderberry products in the upper Midwest,” the organization’s website says. “Our growers decide when to sell their crop to the cooperative. The farmers must profit first or there is no reason for a cooperative.”
“I’m helping to develop an elderberry industry, which is great for small farmers,” Durham said. “There was no commercial elderberry when we started (in Missouri). And now Missouri probably has over 60% of the elderberries in the United States. We’ve been growing slowly in the Midwest, and it’s working out. Now we’ve moved out to the coasts, north and south, because every community can use elderberries.”
Durham gives talks at elderberry conferences year-round, such as the annual Comprehensive Elderberry Workshop, planned Oct. 29 and 30 in Jefferson City. “I drive about 60,000 miles a year and talk to thousands of people who are interested in elderberries,” Durham said.
“He’s like the Johnny Appleseed of elderberries,” said Frank Gordon, grape and elderberry grower in Huntsdale, Mo., with a laugh. “He’s a heck of a promoter.”
The elderberry movement has bloomed, in part, because of the fruit’s reported antiviral and antioxidant properties. Studies to verify these benefits are ongoing, but enthusiasts eagerly consume elderberry products to promote healthy living. That includes the farmers themselves.
“The demand (for elderberry products) is outstanding because of the fact that it’s very high in antioxidants and other medicinals and because it seems to have some efficacy against things like seasonal flu,” said Dr. Michael Gold, elderberry and specialty crop research professor at the Center for Agroforestry at University of Missouri. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, he continued, “people are seeking things that aren’t necessarily manufactured in a lab. So they probably would be leaning toward something like drinking pure elderberry juice that comes from American elderberries versus taking a pill.”
The use of European elderberries dates back as far as recorded history. Even the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates— that venerable, ancient Greek physician who is credited with professionalizing the medical practice—referred to the plant as “nature’s medicine cabinet for the common man.” Research of European and American elderberries alike reveals that they may increase general health through abundant medicinal properties.
MU researchers have even been looking at elderberries to potentially benefit patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well as a possible treatment in stroke recovery, Gold said.
“We need to get the word out on these things, because I think it’s a good fruit,” Gordon said. “I take elderberry juice every day, and it really helps.”
The use of elderberry is accelerating in juices, cocktails, cordials, jams, jellies, muffins, wines, fruit smoothies and even food dye, said Durham. “We’ve been making our juice for 13 years now,” he said, noting the products have FDA approval. “We use a special, very low-key process, where we keep all the good stuff in there. One tablespoon, and it gives you your daily dose.”
Production & pitfalls
American elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are naturally growing shrubs in North America. They can grow 7 to 15 feet tall, with compound clusters (or cymes) of relatively small, white 5-petaled flowers. Elderberries start as small, bright green buds and ripen to a dark purple—almost black—berry when ready for harvest. The branches have smooth, non-thorny bark and terminate in blade-like green leaves.
Elderberry shrubs are often confused with poke berry (Phytolacca americana), cowbane (Cicuta virosa) and devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa). The lookalikes are toxic, often fatally so. Parts of the elderberry shrub are also toxic, such as its inedible, unripe or green parts, due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides (which metabolize into cyanide), as well as other alkaloids.
However, unlike the plants often mistaken for elderberry shrubs, MU research has shown properly processed and ripened elderberries are, for all practical purposes, nontoxic. For example, one would have to eat 4.5 to 13 pounds of raw, ripe elderberries to reach toxic levels, and modern methods of producing elderberry juice volatilizes many toxic compounds, which further reduces toxicity. In comparison, other research has shown apple juice contains more cyanogenic compounds than ripe elderberries, pound for pound.
Growing elderberries can be lucrative, but it’s not without challenges. The development of methods to overcome those hurdles was due in large part to Durham’s involvement in systematizing elderberry farming, not to mention his promotional prowess and business savvy.
Durham’s interest in American elderberry production led to his partnership with the Elderberry Improvement Project in 1997. “I had to just wait for the research, because there was no research on the American stuff, and I’ve always been a little too fast ahead of the curve,” Durham said. He and the other three innovators involved in the initial project, Gold, Patrick Byers and Andrew Thomas, are the movers and shakers of the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative.
Durham said, in the beginning, only small farming entrepreneurs and innovators have invested in elderberry production, but “now we have more traditional farmers converting over some of their crop ground to find some different cash streams.”
The process of growing elderberries is relatively simple, as detailed in “Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri,” published and continually updated by the MU Center for Agroforestry. Like cultivating other crops, the manual states, elderberry production is as complicated as you make it and driven by what you want to get out of it. Elderberry growers often begin with planting dormant hardwood cuttings. The harvesting process takes the elderberry shrubs down to the ground, leaving farmers with ample supplies of cuttings from which to plant more elderberries. Elderberry roots and seeds are also useful for propagation.
From stick to full commercial production may take up to three years, Gold said, because of the need to develop a strong root system by trimming and pruning. This method promotes big, flowering cymes, and thus more berries. After the third year, it’s just a matter of upkeep and smart farming practices.
Shrub selection also makes a big difference in yield, MU research documents show, and where you plan on farming plays a big role in that choice. For example, to stretch the harvest season (and yield), an elderberry farmer may plant multiple selections that ripen at different times and intervals, Gold said.
“Put your cuttings in and then decide how you’re going to control the weeds the first one or two years,” Gordon said, “whether you’re going to use chemicals or mulch or whatever else.” The goal is to allow the root system to develop, strengthen and mature. Once that root system is in place, berry growth accelerates.
“You probably need to irrigate,” Gordon added. “I’ve got my drip irrigation spaced out a little too close at 3 feet, and I can put nitrogen through that spacing as fertilizer. You really need to think it through.”
Indeed, planning goes along way, MU elderberry research says. Several factors go into prepping the orchard, including spacing, weed and pest control, disease prevention, competitive ground cover between rows, drainage and so on.
“Get your feet wet, start slow, see what works,” Gordon said. “Then after that, when you’ve got your own cuttings, you can decide whether or not to expand.”
Elderberry farming does have its limitations, however, and Gordon has found his. “I’m about maxed out,” he said. Harvest typically happens in July, August or early September and is a labor-intensive process that involves hand cutting or breaking off the cymes. That means lots of hands and the expense of human harvesters. As of today, there are no known or widely available machines to pick American elderberries in the field.
Another major limitation is post-harvest treatment of the berries themselves. “You have to harvest the berries at the right ripeness,” Gold said. Too early or too late means the berries are unusable for human consumption. Once the elderberries are harvested, “you have to process them immediately and get them into refrigeration,” Gold added. Harvested elderberries are highly perishable, so even after they have been picked and processed, juicing them is also a time-sensitive matter.
That’s why Durham spends a relatively large amount of time and effort educating potential elderberry farmers, alongside his promotional endeavors.
“One of the most important things about being a successful farmer is mitigating risk,” Durham said. “I always stress, especially with the younger farmers, to make sure you do everything that you can. Don’t wait till the last minute.”
For example, deer are particularly fond of elderberries, and waiting too long to put up a deer fence could lead to ruin. Similarly, if growers don’t have irrigation set up, whole orchards could be lost. One of Durham’s main goals in promotion of elderberry growing, he said, is to help growers make smart decisions that lead to success.
Aside from the challenges of growing the shrubs successfully, making a profit with elderberry products is subject to market volatility, Durham said.
As for yield, Gold said 4,000 to 6,000 pounds per acre is reasonable. “Some folks yield better than that per acre,” he added. Growers may sell their crop for $2 to $3 per pound of packed, cleaned and frozen berries, but the amount of gross profit depends on several factors, including harvesting and processing costs and the market laws of supply and demand.
In a perfect world and full crop, a 1-acre elderberry orchard could gross anywhere between $8,000 and $18,000 wholesale at harvest, Gold said. This is one reason why elderberry farmers tend to have relatively small operations compared to more traditional row crops, he added. Farmers interested in growing elderberries are looking for a completely different kind of crop in a completely different market. A 10-acre elderberry orchard may yield 40,000-60,000 pounds (potentially grossing $80,000 to $180,000)—but then what do you do with all those berries? Can you harvest, process and store them before they rot? These are some of the decisions elderberry farmers, new or seasoned, need to wrestle with every year. So, when Gordon says he’s maxed out, it means just that. With elderberries, as with other crops, at some point more does not mean more.
Demand for elderberry products is relatively high, boosted most recently by COVID-19 health concerns, and Gold said U.S. elderberry producers may only be meeting only about a tenth of the predicted need. That means that if demand for elderberry products grows at the predicted rate, there would need to be about 22,000 acres of elderberries growing in the United States.
According to the 2017 U.S. Agriculture Census, the latest data available, about 500 acres of elderberry are used nationally for commercial production. Of course, not all is reported, but over half the farms were under 5 acres. Of those 500 acres, Missouri has about 300 in production, although that number has likely increased since the census was taken.
“Demand is well outpacing supply,” Durham said. “So, we’ve been raising our prices every year and, gosh, people are paying incredible prices out there. Some are getting $50 a gallon (for fresh berries that have been processed, cleaned and frozen).” Because the supply of American elderberries falls short of demand, 95% of elderberry product in the United States still comes from Europe, Durham added, where production is larger and more maturely established.
Admittedly, Durham said, there are risks and challenges, but it’s not all doom and gloom—far from it. If an elderberry grower thinks it through, plans ahead, prepares his or her orchard well, properly processes harvested berries and has a solution for refrigerated storage, elderberries are a potential boon for the small farmer. Again, as with other crops, it’s all about mitigating risk and adding as much value to your operation as possible, Gold said.
On the other hand, if growers think it’s going to be easy, don’t prepare enough, aren’t familiar with elderberry market volatility or overestimate their ability to handle harvest season, growing elderberries can lead to devastating financial losses. It takes work, preparation, thought and more than a little bit of grit.
“You just have to be patient,” Gordon said. “The first year you’re not going see anything. You’re going to think, ‘What the hell did I do?’ and the second year, ‘Was I a real idiot to do this?’ But then the third year, that’s when you’re really going to see those plants starting to emerge.”
Persimmon Hill Farm in Lampe is one of the regional juicing hubs in Missouri, where co-owner Earnie Bohner turns raw elderberries into juice for products sold to Durham by many independent growers. Although Bohner is not a member of the MEC, he said his business relationship with Durham is built on honesty, integrity and fair dealing.
“He’s just one of the best human beings I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” said Bohner. “Everything he does seems to mirror his value of giving at least as much as he’s getting. He’s a man of his word—he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
Fellow elderberry enthusiast Gordon started his production after attending several workshops and listening to Durham’s educational talks. “He gave all of us two dozen plants to sample and test,” Gordon said. Those samples eventually became the 3-acre mature, productive elderberry orchard he now manages on his Huntsdale farm.
“I love it when people write me a letter and tell me how successful they are,” Durham said. “They could never imagine making so much money farming. It’s all about loving the life you live and living the life you love.”
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