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Pioneering the Purple

Missouri Valley, Iowa

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).

Prospects Lure Producers

The aronia plant, known botanically as Aronia melanocarpa and more commonly as black chokeberry, produces a fruit rich in antioxidants and hailed as a superfood. The aronia berry bests the elderberry, cranberry, blueberry, blackberry, and countless other fruit in oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), a measure of antioxidant strength, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The majority of aronia berry farms in Iowa and beyond are organic, says Andrew, because the crop grows easily without inorganic fertilizers such as nitrogen and without pesticides and herbicides. A bonus: Deer don’t like the taste of the berries.

Eaten raw, the dark purple berry is tart and dry with a somewhat rough texture — not entirely unpalatable, but the aronia lacks the widespread appeal of, say, blueberries or blackberries as a snack. Sawmill Hollow injects the power of the berries into a wide variety of products. Wine, salsa, jelly, vinaigrette, tea. Aronia syrup, aronia barbecue sauce, aronia cayenne sauce. The fruit is transformed into extract, supplement capsules, smoothie powders, even facial cream. A new chili starter was introduced last fall.

“You can’t really project what the aronia berry market is,” says Andrew about a rising demand that’s fueling more aronia products, “because it’s growing so quickly.”

Eldon Everhart, a former Iowa State University Extension horticulturalist who now runs Everhart Horticulture Consulting, says the aronia market is booming, with net return for growers as high as $12,000 an acre. “That’s a phenomenally high price right now. Like gold,” he says with a laugh. That high a profit depends on good yields and high-quality growing practices, he stresses, but is definitely attainable. “The time is ripe for aronia berries.”

Corn and soybean prices in 2011 reached $500 per acre in some areas of Iowa and the country, again with the caveat of high yields and best practices, according to Don Roose, president and broker of U.S. Commodities in West Des Moines. Roose says some of the biggest profits in the history of corn growing were made last year.

Everhart says it’s possible to farm aronias on a scale similar to corn and beans. However, the fruit is new to North America and relatively unknown. As more farmers enter the market and consumer awareness grows, profits will go down as supply meets demand. “But I would guess that won’t happen for five to 10 years or longer,” he says. “Right now is a great time to plant the crop.”

There are today an estimated 100 Iowa farms that each grow more than 50 aronia berry bushes, according to Patrick O’Malley, a commercial horticulture field specialist with Iowa State University Extension in Iowa City. That number is up more than 50 percent from a 2009 estimate. O’Malley credits Sawmill Hollow for much of the surge in popularity. “They’ve really helped pique interest.”

Since they started their operation, the Pittz family has met with countless farmers to discuss the aronia. Their annual two-day North American Aronia Festival in the fall draws about 1,400 people, including current and potential producers looking at the aronia as a crop. Andrew calls it “open-source farming,” with tips and ideas exchanged on an almost daily basis. “We’re hoping the aronia berry will add to rural development,” says Vaughn, “bringing a cash crop to communities.”

Andrew is the face of Sawmill Hollow, traveling in his diesel Volkswagen hatchback throughout Iowa and beyond, selling the aronia and its products at farmers’ markets; in health food stores, grocery cooperatives, and supermarkets; and directly to consumers.

Aronia is a flexible option for producers, he touts. Prospective aronia farmers — beginners pursuing an orchard-style crop, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm looking to add a few acres for a bulk cash crop, or a corn and soybean operation adding aronias to diversify — can get started with as little as one acre.

The Taste of Tomorrow

Lifelong corn and soybean farmer Kent Friedrichsen of Perry has spent 10 years downsizing his operation and transitioning his crops. He now grows soybeans for soy meal that becomes soymilk. He’s planning to add hazelnuts to his farm.

Friedrichsen met the Pittzes in the spring of 2008 and listened to the gospel of aronia. “I wanted a crop that would go toward health,” he says of his attraction to the antioxidant-rich fruit. “Look at what’s the future of the consumer. I know where the ag industry wants us to go; I’m not sure that’s where the consumer wants us to go.”

He added six acres of aronia berries to diversify his farm in 2010 and eventually added another half-dozen acres to bring his total to about 9,600 plants in the soil. The berries provide a way to diversify his farm, and that per acre return is, well, nice.

Friedrichsen believes aronia berries and other horticultural crops are becoming increasingly significant in Iowa agriculture. “Down the road, 20 years from now, these will have played a significant impact in the maturation of the ag industry in Iowa.”

Could they make inroads in a state dominated by large-scale corn and soybean production? “Oh, yeah,” says Friedrichsen, “on farmers’ bottom lines and the overall mind-set.”

Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, agrees that agriculture is destined to diversify in Iowa. “I think we’ll see some significant changes in the food system over next 10 to 15 years, certainly within next 50 to 100.”

Though 88 percent of Iowa’s land is farmed, the state currently imports about 85 percent of its food. That’s because 95 percent of farmland in Iowa is devoted to just two crops — corn and soybeans — that are grown primarily for animal feed and fuel.

The current food system, says Kirschenmann, is ultraspecialized and highly dependent on cheap energy. With extreme weather making maintaining specialized monocultures increasingly challenging and with gasoline prices on a constant climb, he anticipates a shift.

From the early 1900s until around the middle of the century, Iowa farmers grew up to 40 different crops on a commercially viable basis, Kirschenmann says. Iowa used to be the fourth-highest producer of grapes in the nation. Grape production peaked in the state at 15.8 million pounds in 1929, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

After World War II the food system moved in the direction of industrialization, introducing new science, technology, and methods. Use of the herbicide 2,4-D improved corn yields, but its drift damaged vineyards and was one of the leading causes of the decline in grape farming, IDALS documents report.

Iowa became more and more specialized, but there are signs today of a return to diversification. The grape industry is seeing a revival, with the annual economic impact of the state’s vineyard and winery industry at about $234.3 million, according to the Iowa Wine Growers Association. In 1999 there were 11 licensed wineries in the state; today there are 100.

O’Malley reports about 364 farms growing apples in the state, with about 56 growing on a commercially viable level. And there’s room for growth, he says. “If people are willing to put in the money and time, there’s a lot of potential yet to be tapped in apples.”

Rural Resurgence

Breaking into large-scale farming can be cost-prohibitive, with a new farmer needing about 1,000 acres. Per acre farmland prices in Iowa averaged $6,700 last year. (Farmland in Sioux County sold for $20,000 an acre last December, a new record.)

A used tractor goes for around $125,000, a combine is about $100,000, and planters average $60,000. “You start to add those up, and how do you start farming?” asks Kirschenmann. “It’s almost impossible to get into commodity agriculture.”

That challenge, he says, is helping to fuel the trend toward niche farming — small-scale, organic operations; CSA farms (with clients that pay in advance and receive crops weekly during the growing season); and selling at farmers’ markets. He calls the increase “dramatic.”

“They don’t need 1,000 acres; they need three, four, or five acres,” he says. “We’re starting to see this change take place.”

The trend brings a smile to Andrew Pittz’s face.

During a sunny September afternoon in the Loess Hills, he and his parents are among the bushes picking berries, their hands stained purple. Their black-and-white cat, Elvis, supervises from the tall rye grass. The rocking chairs on the porch are empty, motionless except when rustled by the late summer wind. No time to sit and gaze. There’s work yet to be done.

The festival is a few days away, and the family’s been toiling day and night, preparing for another celebration of the fruit they’ve devoted so much to. Their exhaustion is mixed with triumph. It’s a good feeling Andrew hopes can be repeated in Iowa’s rural areas with the return of the family farm. Aronia berries, he suggests, may help fuel the comeback.

“Everyone can be a part of it. The parents planting, farm chores for kids,” he says. “Rural communities have to survive.”

His passion for the idea is evident in his tone, his conviction visible on his face.

“We need them to thrive, not merely survive.”

Sawmill Hollow’s 26-plus acres of aronia plants (top) supply the fruit that makes its way into wine, barbecue sauce, facial cream, and more. Prospective aronia farmers can start much smaller — with as little as one acre.

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