North Central SARE From the Field Profile
Iowa Farmers Utilize Alternative Crop to Develop New Opportunities for Small Family Farms
In Missouri Valley, IA, Vaughn and Cindy Pittz have been developing the opportunity for small family farms to utilize the aronia berry as a sustainable organic alternative crop at Sawmill Hollow Organic Farms, located 6 miles north of Missouri Valley, Iowa in Harrison County.
Vaughn Pittz attended a food technology conference in New Orleans, where he learned about aronia. As a family project, the Pittzs established small test plots. By the late 1990’s the bushes were producing 20 to 25 pounds per bush. Based on preliminary results, they decided expanding their planting was necessary to support new product development/test marketing of aronia Berry products.
By 2005, the Pittzs were eager to research the feasibility of the aronia berry as a value-added, profitable, alternative crop which could be produced in the North Central Region by the small family farm, and to develop the opportunity for small family farms to utilize the aronia berry as a sustainable organic alternative crop. They submitted a proposal to the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) Farmer Rancher Grant program, and received a grant for $5,990.
“We could see that a sustainable, value added crop would benefit not only our farm but also provide opportunities for others, with the potential to create a new industry for our declining rural communities,” explained Vaughn Pittz.
Commonly known as the Chokeberry, the aronia berry is a lesser-known berry variety, native to North America that is becoming increasingly popular for its coloring and antioxidant properties.
Throughout their project, they planted more than 13,000 aronia berry bushes. They developed a business relationship with Bluebird Nursery to assist with the propagation of the organic aronia berry plants using soft wood cuttings from the Sawmill Hollow stock. They continued to research and developed six aronia berry products: aronia jelly, aronia cayenne Sauce, aronia BBQ sauce, aronia syrup, aronia salsa, and aronia wine.
Dr. Eldon Everhart, a commercial horticulture specialist with Iowa State University Extension, conducted educational seminars highlighting the aronia berry as a sustainable, value-added crop.
Sawmill Hollow Organic Farms presented two Aronia Field Day workshops in 2006 and 2007 respectively; they had eighty-five participants at their first Aronia Field Day, and approximately 150 people attended their 2007 field day. They offered tours of the organic plantation fields, demonstrating hands-on planting, growing techniques, and harvesting techniques.
In September 2008, Sawmill Hollow held the first ever 2-day Organic Aronia Berry Festival attended by more than 700 people. They featured artisans from the Loess Hills region of Western Iowa and guest speaker Joan Benjamin of NCR-SARE. The Sawmill Hollow Log Cabin Country Store will be opening in April 2009, where organic aronia berry products and Loess Hills artisan products will be sold.
Today, Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm is the largest aronia berry plantation in the Midwest and the first in the United States to be managed organically, certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship.
“The potential for this to become an industry for our Region is real,” said Pittz. “We have discovered and demonstrated that the aronia berry is a low input crop, one with roots native to America. The berry has the potential for value added farm to market production and it also displays great promise as a high value raw berry. We consider it to be an asset for small diversified sustainable farms.”
Since 1988, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC05-561, Aronia Berry: A Sustainable Organic Crop.
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These products were developed with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within these products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.