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Pioneering the Purple

A new niche crop is changing
the agricultural landscape in Iowa

Story by Mike Brownlee, photography by John Holtorf 

A pair of rocking chairs on the farm lodge’s front porch provides a vantage point from which the beauty of the Loess Hills unfolds. Untouched woodlands frame 149 acres of the Missouri Valley landscape.

A placid lake forms a crescent around the property. Birds chirp, butterflies flutter, native grasses blow in the wind. The setting is serene, gorgeous — Grant Wood fodder.

Andrew Pittz sits in one of those chairs, facing out on row after row of aronia berry bushes. The co-operator of Sawmill Hollow Organic Farms talks about farming, the crops, the soil, the land, the idea.

He transitions between big picture and small, ruminating on large-scale production and organic. “People have this idea of Iowa agriculture,” he says.

“Yeah, there are corn and soybeans, the more conventional crops that people think of. And those are very important. But there are also lots of fruit orchards, vineyards, aronia berry farms, and more.

They all make up that tapestry of Iowa agriculture. That’s one of the reasons why Iowa’s such a good agricultural state — because of all those things working together.”

The 26-year-old operates the Missouri Valley organic farm with his parents. Vaughn and Cindy Pittz followed different careers — Vaughn in food service, Cindy in education — before buying their acreage in western Iowa.

Cindy grew up on a farm in rural Mondamin; Vaughn in the small burg of Holstein, Nebraska, and worked on his relatives’ farms “as soon as I was old enough to work.”

Both wanted to return to family-farm living. “It gets in your blood after a while,” says Vaughn. “We wanted to get back to the good life. Back to nature.”

Along with dog Snowy, the family Pittz founded Sawmill Hollow in 1997 with 207 plants, becoming the first commercial aronia berry farm in the United States.

Their crop has expanded to more than 13,000 aronia plants on over 26 acres (some bushes on nearby land owned by Cindy’s family for generations).


(Read more about Pioneering the Purple)

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