Hosts Jason Fischbach and Carl Duley interview Chris Patton of the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative and Natasha Simeon of Regeneration Acres about elderberries. The interview covers production, products, marketing, and information about the elderberry cooperative.
Recorded September 1, 2020
Carl Duley, Natasha Simeon, Jason Fischbach, Chris Patton
Jason Fischbach 00:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on the cutting edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Carl Duley 00:11
We always tell people start small make sure you can love the plant and deal with it and and get your feel on the harvest and aspects of it before you go big. (music)
JASON FISCHBACH 00:39
Welcome everybody to a the cutting edge our podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. I am JASON FISCHBACH, the agriculture agent Ashland-Bayfield counties and joined today by Carl Duley. Carl?
Carl Duley 00:53
Yeah, thanks, Jason. I’m looking forward to this program on elderberries. My, my experience in elderberries is eating elderberry jelly that my mother used to make and sneaking a little elderberry wine that she had now and then, so that’s the extent. So I’m ready to learn today.
JASON FISCHBACH 01:10
I used to grow up by our farm here in Ashland and didn’t have any success. I think the soils are too heavy maybe, but I remember as a kid, it was all over in our woods outside Shorewood, Minnesota down in the Twin Cities and we used to take the stems, I think this was elderberry. Take the stems and they’re hollow.
Chris Patton 01:27
JASON FISCHBACH 01:27
You could make flutes and all kinds of cool stuff out of them. But that’s really the extent to my experience with it. But luckily we have some pros here to join us today to talk about elderberry, not only the plant and the production but also the efforts that are underway in the Midwest to develop an industry around elderberry and elderberry flowers. It sounds like too? So let’s just jump jump right into it. Chris Patton with the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative, Chris, welcome. And a, want to introduce yourself and how you’re involved with elderberries.
Chris Patton 01:56
Thank you. Yes, I’m Chris Patton. If you’ve gone to the Moses conference and come by the elderberry booth, River Hills Harvest with Terry Durham, you’ve probably met me. I’ve been there since 2011. And that’s where I first learned about elderberry when Terry Durham who’s based south of Columbia, Missouri was presenting on that. And he’s, he’s been there longer than I have and he is a multi decade farmer by experience and around 2000 he started looking at the elderberries growing wild around the edges of his farm and he says well what happens if I put them in the field. And that coincided with interest from the University of Missouri to do some research and explore that for many of the same reasons. Both of you hosting here mentioned and finding alternative crops, perennial crops. And now elderberry is the number one fruit crop of Missouri in sales volume and dollar value.
JASON FISCHBACH 02:55
Number one? Over small fruit, strawberries, all that stuff.
Chris Patton 02:59
Yep, yeah, they have probably about 400 producing acres, at least there in Missouri, maybe 500 because we are adding acres every year. And I, besides leading the co op, which I started in September of 2012. I market the River Hills Harvest brand of elderberry products nationally outside of Missouri. And so you’ll find them they I’ve been in the co-ops, there, the food co-ops in Wisconsin for a long time. Other stores independents like Metcalfe’s or Fresh Thyme. And so and we’re in about 500 retail stores across the country Hy-Vee carries them too in a lot of their stores. So I’ve got a I originally looked at elderberries from the standpoint of growing them, but soon realized that I was 62 at the time that I’d be better off working with developing the industry and partnering and I did farm for six years with Natasha Simeon who will come on here a little bit later. And Paul Otten was my mentor, with again, a man with decades of experience and working with berries and currants and all kinds of things. And I owe a lot to him. And without him. I might not have been started the co-op, but he introduced me to cooperative development services. So we’ve done a number of feasibility studies and had a number of grants, primarily in Minnesota. We did get some recently in Wisconsin for developing and growing and we’re very excited about that. And we also work closely with the Savannah Institute. And we just finished up a series of three discussions between Carrie and I that you can find on the Savannah Institute website, if you want more information after this podcast.
JASON FISCHBACH 04:45
Great. Thanks, Chris. And Natasha, can you tell us about yourself and how you’re involved with elderberries?
Natasha Simeon 04:51
Yeah. Hey, I’m Natasha Simeon and I farm at Regeneration Acres. I got involved with elderberries. I was volunteering at Natura Farms, which was managed by the late Paul Otten. And while I really enjoyed vegetable production and digging potatoes and carrots out of the ground, there’s always been something really appealing to me about perennial crops. Because you, you have the plant and you have a relationship with the plant and it, it’s something permanent, not so transient. And I always hated at the end of the season having to like pull up tomatoes, like it feels like you’ve got this healthy plant you’ve been nurturing. And at the end of the season, you need to pull it up or it dies from the frost. And perennials don’t do that they stick around and you have a relationship. And one of my favorite things about perennials is that if you have like with COVID life kind of got busy with my off farm job, and I kind of have ignored my field, but they’re still there. So that’s something I find really, really, really appealing about perennials and elderberries because they are an improved variety of a native crop. You don’t have to sit and baby them and and I appreciate that in my life. So I worked with Paul and I learned about soils and I learned about perennial crops and I learned about human health and elderberries. And now my primary focus is propagation from nursery stock. But I also, it’s amazing because of the work Chris has done. It’s amazing how people went from asking me, “What are elderberries?”, to they hear the word elderberries and their eyes just perk up and their ears perk up and they’re like, I want some give me some make sure you reserve some for me. So it’s just kind of amazing what’s happened in the industry in the last couple years, or a few years.
JASON FISCHBACH 06:41
So tell us about elderberries, the plant how they grow, are they trees are they shrubs, talk and talk about sort of from the beginning of planting on up to harvest how you manage these things, what to look for. So, Natasha, you want to start?
Natasha Simeon 06:57
Sure. Um, so as I mentioned, elderberries are native so they don’t really need special babying and pampering. They really appreciate having good soil. A lot of people have the notion that they like, like to have their feet wet. And the reality is they they can grow near water, but they don’t like to actually be in water. It’s not that’s not their natural habitat. If you see elderberries, you’ll see them on on creek beds and on roadsides, but they’re not down in the bottom there on the side. So when people call and asked me what’s the best place to grow elderberries, I tell them full sun is best because you get the best berry production like any other Berry, but they can handle part shade, you’re just not going to get as good of crop or volume wise. And they love, they love the ideal so that every plant loves, but they can tolerate other soils as well. They don’t like it too Sandy, they don’t like it too clay. When you get them you can start them with cuttings, where it’s just a dormant hardwood cutting that has what they’re called the nodes. And so the the bottom node becomes the root, the top node becomes the leaves and stems, you can also start them as started plants. The most important thing when you’re planting elderberries is that first season and that first couple seasons, make sure they’re watered, and make sure that they’re kept weed free. And that lets them get their feet under them. And once they have their feet under them, they will reward you for years and years and years to come. And in fact, if you do nothing once they’re established, you will end up with an elderberry forest like they will literally outcompete everything you won’t have alleys you’ll just have this huge elderberry forest.
JASON FISCHBACH 08:34
So Natasha, the cuttings? Are those? I’m familiar somewhat with like Willow cuttings or dogwood. How long should they be? What’s sort of the minimum maximum diameter? Do they need to be you know, vegetative New Year sprouts? Or can they be from second year wood or, or what kind of cuttings work? So they elderberries in our climate and upper Midwest, the best thing once they’re established after the second season, the best thing to do is actually cut them down to the ground. Because you get the most the most fruit on that first year’s growth. And so if you want to vegetatively propagate them, the thing to do is they’re going to go dormant in the fall and then in late winter, well well, with basically I do it when I can get out in the field without the snow going into my like, you know, I wear my snow boots so high and I don’t want the snow going into me and getting wet. So while they’re dormant, you go out and take the cuttings, the best size is about pencil size, too small and they don’t do as well too big and you’re just putting too much energy into cutting the stems, and so about the width of a pencil, and you want it to have at least two nodes. And so you have the bottom node is the one that differentiates into roots and the top nodes differentiates into leaves and stems. You can actually propagate them sideways or instead of growing them up and down in the media. You turn them sideways and so some people have done that where you just have the Take the whole stem and lay it sideways and then every single node differentiates into an individual plant. The challenge with that is if you’re doing it in the ground, just make sure you keep up on the weeds so that the weeds don’t overtake it. And once like I said, once they’re like you give them water, or make sure they have water, make sure they’re kept weeded, and they get planted, we put the rows in between rows, I would say at least 10 feet more if you’re if you’ve got the space, because once your plants become established, it kind of feels like a, like a jungle. And when you’re out harvesting, and the plants are full size, it’s really hard. Like at Natura, the plants were planted, I think they were nine feet on center. And you feel like you’re in the middle of a, like Amazon jungle trying to harvest. So how tall do they get when they’re at maturity?
Natasha Simeon 10:46
Different cultivars get different heights. The shorter ones get about seven, eight feet, and the taller ones get about 12 feet. So there’s kind of a variety there. But that’s kind of the range that they get.
JASON FISCHBACH 10:59
Carl Duley 10:59
You said the first year of maintaining weed free, are you doing that through mulching mainly, or?
Natasha Simeon 11:06
The best way is mulching and mowing. And just keeping the weeds down so that they’re getting their roots under them. And they’re multi stem. So each plant doesn’t just have one, I mean there’s a primal cane, the main thing, but once they get established, each plant will end up having, I don’t know, like 8 to 10, 15 stems on the plant.
Chris Patton 11:25
Some of your folks might think well, I can just go grab out of the wild because they are all over the place. You know, we’ve always encouraged people to do that because they’re terribly understudied. I’ve got four different wild ones in my yard that I secured from along Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis. And they’re all a little different. And I talked about them in some of the presentations that you can find in the on the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative website. And actually, that website now has three websites, there’s so much material there, they’re all linked together. But one focuses on growing, another on the health benefit research. And then the other is primarily targeted to the many people that come looking to buy elderberry ingredients. But it has summaries on the health and growth. So the problem with most of the wild ones do not bear fruit on the first year cane. And so this makes it much more labor intensive and difficult for management. And it could work in some of the northern areas where the seasons are shorter if someone’s focused on flower production, as opposed berries, because generally, the wild ones that I have in my yard also do not ripen as evenly as the cultivars that were tested at the University of Missouri. And that’s a big thing. And that’s probably an area at some point where we get I know, Don Wyse of the University of Minnesota wants to, you know, find the genes so that we can ripen those things evenly, which would make a huge difference. And then the berries do differ in size, ingredient composition, sweetness, you know, acidity, all of that. And we really don’t know, we don’t know how much of that is the variation in the genetics, how much of it is soil related. And so these are all factors involved. And as far as what Natasha was saying, you’ve got to mow because they spread like raspberries. And so, you know, we usually have a mixture of legumes and native grasses in between the aisles and and you want to keep them mowed or they do take over they spread. And we’ve grown more to favor those cultivars that tend to be more upright as well for that reason, because some of them tend to be a little bit more wavy,dancy, bowing and that gets in the way of mowing a lot more quickly, and then they get tangled. And we also get into the issues of pest control that way too. But and growers do matting and plastics to control the weeds the first year, but you you have to have something that’s going to decompose or you’re gonna have to pull it off because of the way the plant spreads.
JASON FISCHBACH 14:14
Got it. So on the cultivars side, are there particular cultivars that are kind of rising to the top that most growers grow? Is the market favoring a particular cultivar over another?
Chris Patton 14:26
Well, the three most favorite cultivars right now our Ranch, Bob Gordon, and Adams. And elderberries, like tomatoes, are determinant and indeterminate and the determinant meaning they they bloom and berry once, indeterminate, they keep blooming. So Adams is an indeterminant, Ranch and Bob Gordon are determinants. And when people like growing Ranch and Bob Gordon, because Ranch is usually a couple weeks earlier, so it splits a little bit on the level. I’m sorry on the labor. And when it comes harvest time, and that’s really important. I’ve talked to a number of folks growing corn and soybeans about growing elderberries, a crop, for instance. And one of the things they’ve got to understand is that there’s still a huge amount of hand labor involved in this. And the technology is not there on elderberry yet. It’s all in development. We do have mechanical assistance on de-stemming the berries, because your buyers are going to want those berries pretty much all ripe, and not the green and unripe ones and without much of any stems. And so that’s Terry developed the the stemmer that works. So we can commercialize the berry production and producer retail brand. We have some other growers that are working on different destemmer models. And with their different ideas, but we don’t have a large volume destemmer available yet. I just got a USDA grant, or VAPD Planning grant. And the cooperative development services is managing and we’ve got participation with folks in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And we’ll be looking at the development of production hubs. And part of that is the improved technology on the crop handling from harvest to actually frozen bulk storage.
JASON FISCHBACH 16:27
So those favorite cultivars right now, how far north are they being grown?
Chris Patton 16:32
Well, they’ll grow all the way into Canada, the key is, is will you get a crop. And so and this is where if you don’t cut them all the way down, you’re going to get a flowers and berries a couple weeks earlier than if you do even on those same cultivars, but you’re not going to have the same evenness of ripening. And that’s a, that’s a factor because whenever you prune a bush, even within that bush, your cymes or your bunch of berries aren’t going to harvest or ripen at the same time. And so on the ones in my yard, I’ll go and I’ll pick a third, 40% of the cymes and then I’ll go back, pick the other half and then the other half. And that’s that’s just even on the cyme not even considering the aspects of the berry ripening evenness within the cyme.
JASON FISCHBACH 17:23
Got it. So let me circle back here to Natasha, back to the kind of production sequence. So they put cuttings in the ground or rooted plants perhaps keep the weeds down the first year. And then it’s cut back in the fall or early spring. I take it and then
Natasha Simeon 17:41
Yeah, actually the first two seasons, you don’t want to cut them back.
JASON FISCHBACH 17:44
Okay, so two years, you just let them go.
Natasha Simeon 17:46
Yep, you let them go. And I tell people, I don’t know if everybody does it. But I tell people if you really want to, if you want to play if you’re playing long game, those first two years, you pick off those flowers as soon as they start developing, because you want that plant putting all of its energy into root production. And so those first two seasons, and it’s pretty simple when the when the flowers first form, you just take your fingers and roll them and just kind of roll them right off. But so it’s a little tedious, but if you do it you’re rewarded by better roots and elderberries have amazing root systems once they have their roots under them you are never moving that plant like they are long ropey ruts that I tell people if you ever get an elderberry field and change your mind your elberberry fields will haunt you because any of those roots that you leave in the ground will come up and unless you’re mowing them, you will have an elderberry field again.
JASON FISCHBACH 18:33
Got it. Okay, so it’s gone two years now my first production year, what what should I be doing?
Natasha Simeon 18:39
Um, waiting for them to ripen and being really nice to all your friends and neighbors so that when they ripen you have a whole gaggle of people to help you. Because as Chris mentioned there is it is not mechanized, you’re out there we use apple picking bags and hands little scissors. And I try and gather as many people as possible or bribe my kids to go on the field and we you go through the field and you cut off the berries and put them into bins and so it’s not only your hand harvesting that the challenge is you have got to get those plants or those those berries. processed. We have to de stem them, clean them, rinse them rinse them out while you’re cleaning. You’re actually sorting out the unripe berries, the slugs, the spiders, all the other things when you when you put them in the water, the ripe berries sink, basically everything else floats and so you have to skim it and then you rinse it and strain it and you want to package it and get it in the freezer and you want to do that pretty quick because as soon as those berries aren’t on that plant, they’re they’re, they’re losing like you need to get them on frozen as quick as you can. Because they preserve the integrity.
JASON FISCHBACH 19:55
A firm berry like in aronia or they go splat like a raspberry When they’re ripe their, yeah, kind of in that they don’t get as soft as a raspberry but when they’re ripe, they have they have a firm skin but you can’t be too rough on them because they can squish thats the biggest challenge and maybe I’m segwaying to something else we’re not going to yet but with Spotted Wing Drosophila that’s really been challenging because usually when they’re ripe there’s there’s a firmness to them that you’re okay. But when when they have spotted wing drosophila you even when you go to pick them, the fruit is already like shriveled like they’ve already sucked the juice out and your hands get totally purple because the spotted wing drosophila has been feasting on your fruit before you get there.
Carl Duley 20:40
So the skin isn’t real tough then like the aronia and some others that.
Natasha Simeon 20:44
Carl Duley 20:45
It doesn’t really protect it. Oh, what are the size of these berries? I know they vary. What’s kind of an average size. I haven’t seen them since I was a little kid. So
JASON FISCHBACH 20:53
Um, that’s hard. Chris, what’s something that’s close to that size?
Chris Patton 20:56
I say I can put six of them on my fingernail.
Natasha Simeon 21:00
There that’s good.
Carl Duley 21:01
Okay. So their pretty small.
Chris Patton 21:03
Like, like Natasha said, you know they are when they’re properly ripe. They’re dusky, dark, they aren’t shiny, dark. And they’re all a little different than how black versus how red they are when they’re ripe. Usually, I would wait till I started to see some falling off. And then the Asian fruit fly the Spotted Wing Drosophila is the biggest problem. Japanese beetle can also be a problem. We’ve got a new grower, this is his third year and he’s in western Wisconsin, he was planning on having a few hundred pounds and he said the deer ate it. So, you know, depending on where you are deer fencing is an issue sometimes birds at Nature farm were Natasha and I work together with Paul, we didn’t have those issues. So I mean, you had some birds around the edges, but you know, most of the crop was good. And it’s like any kind of berry crop. If you’ve got, you know, some bird droppings or if you’ve got a sign that’s been infested with a drosophila. You don’t pick those, youu get rid of them.
JASON FISCHBACH 22:08
So, Chris, you said the four letter word in the world of perennial woody crops, deer. And I you know, in hazelnuts, it’s interesting because we kind of, oh, sometimes we like to lessen the impact of deer maybe because we’re trying to promote the crop. But let’s let’s just get right down to brass tacks how big of a problem are deer? Right? Will they will they chew these things to the ground and wipe you out in the first or second year if you don’t do something? Or is it really their nibbling, and it does actually depend on your density?
Chris Patton 22:41
It really depends on your deer pressure. Elderberry is not their favorite food, not like a raspberry or an apple. And so you know, for most of our growers, and this is I mean, I’ve got members from coast to coast now. And the stories I get is that, you know, the deer will nibble around the edges, they’ll eat a little bit here and there. But you get some areas where the deer pressure is high. And it’s a big problem. And in the same with birds, I mean, if you’re along a flyway of a species of bird that identifies with feasting on those berries, you’re going to need bird netting, we’ve got a farmer and Winona. And he’s he has to have the whole thing netted and the whole thing fenced, fenced against the deer netted against the birds. You know, so it varies. I mean, a lot of folks down on Missouri, they get a permit where they can hunt deer out of season. And so as the berries are getting ripe, they go out or they find friends to go out and hunt around the area and the deer aren’t stupid, they get away from your fields. But most places need some kind of fencing and there’s a lot of different approaches to that from filament and electric wire to the full fledged deer fencing and I know Minnesota has a deer fence program. Not sure about Wisconsin but you know, that is something that is very determined by the areas, just like your soil.
JASON FISCHBACH 24:12
So you’ve harvested now what do you let it grow the rest of the year and then cut it in the winter to the ground or are you doing some pruning post harvest or? It depends. Um, I would encourage most people if they’re not looking to do vegetative production, if they’re not looking to take their own cuttings, the best time to prune them to the ground is once they’ve gone dormant in the late fall. Just because there are things like cane bore and post pests that can and and and mites that can stay over winter. And so if to reduce the number of those, the best thing to do is to do it in late fall once you know the plants dormant just go through and cut it to the ground. People have done different experiments with you know to cut it 16 feet tall or 16 inches tall, 12 inches tall, but really Overall, except for one called Johns that really not a lot of people are growing because of its challenges the extra labor, the best thing to do is basically get them within a couple like three, three inches of the ground and cut them down and just remove those canes and then just let them sleep through the winter and then come spring, they’ll come up and do their thing. Got it.
Carl Duley 25:20
So winter hardiness, not too… you don’t have to mulch them or anything in the far north?
Natasha Simeon 25:25
Chris Patton 25:26
They’re native. They’re native. They’re not going to give you a problem. And like Natasha said, if you don’t cut it closer to the ground like that, the canes that come up are not as strong and they’re more prone to wind damage. So you want you want like four inches or lower from the ground.
JASON FISCHBACH 25:42
You said there’s 400 acres in Missouri. And I’m thinking a couple of things. One 400 acres of hand harvested fruit, boy with that model, what’s the ceiling? And then also from you know, any new crop, what do you think is the ceiling for elderberry?
Chris Patton 25:58
Okay, so, so when I started this, and there’s presentations on that going back. The market for elderberry if 1% of our population would use some elderberry more than once a year we need 22,500 acres of cultivated elderberry and we probably only have a little over 1000 acres right now. I can tell you right now that demand far exceeds supply, especially with COVID we sold out of all available elderberry but whether it be bulk frozen or the River Hills Harvest products are most of our growers and members make their own products. They’ve, everyone was sold out by March, if not the first week in April. And so right now, I mean even when I go to my national distributor KEHE, they said you do not need to advertise this year, we won’t require that as part of your marketing because if you can just get product in the stores it’ll be gone. And no, you don’t need to do a sale of 15% only go 10% and I’m only doing one sale instead they normally want you to do four sales a year but this is this is the market for elderberry. It is insatiable at this point. I am trying to juggle orders and production availability. And it’s a big challenge.
JASON FISCHBACH 27:20
So what are what are the main products that elderberry somebody mentioned harvesting both flowers but then of course the berries.
Chris Patton 27:27
Yes, and just on the flowers we do suggest that people harvest flowers and sell them up to three or four feet above the ground. Because those berries generally don’t set as well anyway and it will put more of the energy towards the top and the top is further from the ground which you want and is for pest management especially the SWD the Asian fruit fly. And Paul Otten was a big fan of having your your rows a little more narrow, more like three feet wide so that you got lots of sun and air moving through those, that mass of the bushes in order to keep the pest issues down and then other kinds of natural pest and disease control just the sun and air is really good.
JASON FISCHBACH 28:15
Flowers they’re picking just to get rid of them or are they actually being sold?
Chris Patton 28:19
There’s a big market for flowers, okay, and that could be fresh frozen or dried flowers. And and I’m paying $25 a pound for dried flowers and I can’t get enough. I have a lot of breweries that use them, they can be used instead of hops. Most people will will take the flowers and you can do fresh frozen or dried flowers make a syrup from them and with the syrup you can add that to ciders you can do liquers with them. I and I you know St.Paul’s 11 Wells Distillery does an elderflower liquor with it. I’ve got breweries all across the country that want it and I’ve got about a dozen small herbal infusion companies that make herbal infusions with the flowers. And some are in Wisconsin.
JASON FISCHBACH 29:05
Tell us more about the co-op in terms of how it’s structured in terms of if I’m a grower with 10 plants can I join? If I’m a grower with 1000 acres, can I join you? How do you balance?
Chris Patton 29:17
Well, I do have everything spelled out on the membership page, but I’ll just go over it briefly here we we have a 308B Co-op. Dave Swanson’s, our attorney, Dorsey & Whitney. It’s the best organized Co-op out there. It’s an open Co-op. I work with growers, if they’re members or not, is not been too hard nose or anxious or overly trying to get people to join. Because I want to make sure that it’s going to work for them. Most of our members at this point are smaller producers who also make their own products and so they are strictly a voting member. We also have a distribution rights level. These are for folks who want to you know just grow commercially and have the Co-op sell it and make ingredients through the Co-op. I’ve got more growers interested in that. And as we get the technology together that will be possible. We’re looking at, for instance, putting in over 100 acres of production, just west of the twin cities around the Montrose Buffalo area. And that’s in conjunction with a Veterans Farming Initiative and some other neighboring farms, it’s a nonprofit. They work with veterans, disabled veterans. And so we’re planning to put disabled veterans and veterans to work and processing producing elderberry. And doing some basic ingredients. That’s going to be part of that USDA planning grant study that I mentioned.
JASON FISCHBACH 30:04
Got it. How about the hand harvest issues this is this a sustainable option? Or is there work to develop that?
Chris Patton 30:38
The hand harvesting aspect of it is the lesser of the two big problems. The destemming is the biggest problem. I mean, those cymes, if you can get them in the sun, as Natasha said, with the full sun, you can actually snap off those cymes if they’re evenly ripe. And that speeds that up. If some of them part of the cyme, they’re like five fingers and the whole finger will be ripe but maybe two of the five are ripe, and you got to come back later for the other three or something. And that’s where you need the Clippers or scissors or something like that. But that’s, that requires labor but also like for the flowers requires labor. I had a big grower in Iowa, they couldn’t get me any flowers this year because of the labor issue. Probably COVID was a factor in that. But the destemming is the big thing, because right now we have batch destemming we can do between three to five hundred pounds an hour with a crew of about three or four people. And that would be pickers and destemmers. And that’s the minimum you want to be looking at. A lot of times Natasha and I were doing it ourselves. And really, it feels a lot better if you got four or five or six people out there.
Natasha Simeon 31:58
Yes! And that is the bottleneck the destemming is every single time. I mean, you could have four people you can have 20 people actually, you know, it’s worse if you have all those people out picking the destemming is the bottleneck in the whole operation. And that’s the thing. Thankfully, there’s some really cool tinkerers and engineers out there that are working on it, because once that, once somebody figures out how to make the stemming go faster, it’s gonna, I think it’s going to really revolutionize the harvesting.
Chris Patton 32:28
A little bit here you mentioned about aronia a few times. And the two berries have a close nutritive profile. Aronia is easier to grow. It’s much harder to sell. And that’s because of its bitterness. Elderberry is a sweet neutral, it actually has a positive Brix about half the sweetness of a grape, and that makes it much more desirable. It also has a longer cultural tradition, and much higher demand. Although aronia is a great berry. We have a lot of people who have been growing aronia that are moving into elderberry. And either in whole or in part. I had a really good conversation with the largest aronia grower in Iowa a couple weeks back. So that’s that’s what I want to say about that. And I think in the future also, we’re looking at the possibility of developing ingredients blending things like blackcurrants, aronia and elderberry together, there’s a lot of potential for those three perennial crops and in marketing, the demand is there. The key is I worked for Pillsbury for five years and three of those for International R&D, and particularly Haagen Dazs International. So I’m used to working with the ingredients and stuff like that. And it’s like anything else, you’ve got to put it in a form that your manufacturers want. I’ve got, well I’ve had, I’ve been to national trade shows four or five years in a row, I’ve got over a dozen major brands that want to have elderberry flavors in some form or another, I just cannot promise the production for them to do product development.
Carl Duley 33:58
Natasha when is normal harvest time for you then you said you’re a little later than other like Twin Cities. But…
JASON FISCHBACH 34:03
Yeah, you know, um, this year is later than normal. My berries right now are just starting to get purple. So, like when I drive in the cities, you know, there’s not elderberry fields yet, right? Like you don’t drive by elderberry fields. But all the different wild elderberries that I see on the roadside. I’m about two to three weeks behind what I see in the cities.
Carl Duley 34:24
So you’ll be looking at harvest mid to late September then?
JASON FISCHBACH 34:28
Yep, yep. And the different cultivars ripen at different times the Ranch ripens a little earlier than the other ones. And like Chris said, even within it, so each cultivar has it like brightens that a little bit different time. And then even within that same cyme, the cyme is that the clump of berries, there’s these five fingers and so if you’re being, if you’re being time efficient, you just harvest it and you lose some you lose some crop because you have unripe berries. If you’re going for maximum harvest, you come through with the scissors and you cut each of those ones, just like strawberries or tomatoes like that, you know, they ripen in order, and you can, you can watch the order. So you come through and and grab that, that finger off, and then come back later and get the next one. So the good thing is, it’s not something it’s not a crop where you have to do it all in the same weekend, you can, you can kind of space it out a little bit, which is good because you have to, you have to get those people to come help you. And again, it’s not the, it’s not the harvesting, it’s that once you once it’s harvested, getting it ready for the freezer. That’s the hard part. Now, I do have this to say if a person is interested in growing elderberries, and they’re not looking to do it commercially, or retail, my uncle laughed at me like after the first year, I was part of it. And I was telling him all this work we did, my uncle just laughed at me. And he’s like, because he’s been, he’s foraged for, like decades. And he’s like, this is what you do. He said, You have your chest freezers, and he said, you go harvest your elderberries, and you stick him in a plastic bag, and you’re like, you harvest the whole cyme, you stick it in the plastic bag, throw it in the freezer, and then later on, when you have time, you take it out of the freezer and kind of like, tap it a little, and the berries fall off the cyme. Okay, so the destemmer, is this, where like every farmer could have a destemmer? Or is it still pretty centralized where you’re shipping the whole cyme to some processing plant? So you can’t. The cyme actually has to be processed on site. Because that berry is perishable. And so that’s the the part that Chris is trying to develop where there’s hubs. It would be that growers in a certain area could pick and then that very same day drive their drive their harvest to the to the hub where it gets de stemmed and cleaned and cleaned and rinsed and, and packed and thrown in a freezer. It’s, it’s that’s a part where it’s, you know, most people that are doing this don’t want to invest, you know how to I don’t, I don’t know how much things cost, I know it would cost a whole lot to set up a whole processing facility to do this on a major scale, there’s a large cost involved in that. And so that’s the reason for the hub. And that’s why like on a smaller scale, if a person just wants to have an acre a few like ours, we don’t have all of the tools. Because again, my main thrust isn’t is in production, but we just go out and harvest and, and, and do it without the destemmer, we have to hand hand separate it, and then get it rinsed in and thrown in the freezer. So it’s depending on what level a person wants to get involved. I think if somebody was like, all in and they’re like, hey, I want 1000 acres, then at that point, yeah, get yourself the freezer and get yourself all the supplies so that you can do it. And I think that the industry is going to go that way. But in the meantime, it’s kind of the hubs is what’s what’s in development. Yeah, it’s interesting, because it’s like almost sounds like an exact parallel track as the hazelnut world right now in the Midwest, where we’ve got a lot of small growers doing everything by hand. And then we finally just got our processing incubator facility built. So now people can bring all their hazelnuts to get sized and cracked and cleaned and everything. So, boy, it’d be great to have something like that happening in Wisconsin. You know, elderberry processing. Oh. I would love that. Because you need you need that infrastructure. Or else like I said, you’re really just begging, like by the end of the season, nobody wants to answer my phone because I when I was when I was focusing on berry production, they’re like, Oh, no, I know what she’s doing. She’s calling cuz she wants me to come harvest Don’t answer the phone. Right.
Carl Duley 38:29
Right. Jason, just for a second, wondering about the juice market. I know, I read a little bit about the elderberry juice market, is that an avenue that more growers are looking at? Do you have to spend as much time do stemming if you’re juicing them right away? Or how does that fit into the marketing process?
JASON FISCHBACH 38:45
So what I do first is I take those frozen berries that are like, you know, ripe berries and like, as much as I can get them to be just ripe berries, it’s just ripe berries in that bucket. And I take them out. And what happens is when they thaw a lot of the juice comes out on its own, so I put them in a colander and and the juice comes out on its own. And that’s so that is raw elderberry juice. So there’s a market for that. In most of the time consumers don’t like if I’m directly selling to people, they don’t want raw elderberry juice, they want me to have made it into syrup, or I call it a tonic. Because people get really confused when you say syrup. They’re like, yes, there’s a lack of education. So if you’re like in the crunchy mama circle, they know exactly what you’re saying when you say elderberry syrup, but in the general population. They’re like, wow, that’s really expensive. Yeah, they want to put on your pancakes. I’m not going to spend all that money to put it on my pancakes. And I’m like you better not put it on your pancakes isn’t really gonna offend me. If you take all my work and throw it on a pancake. Um, so… Oh, I’m sure it’s yummy. But it’s just like, I it’s so expensive. You’d have to like really be indulging yourself.
Carl Duley 39:52
I make really good pancakes!
Natasha Simeon 39:53
Well, there you go. Yeah. See you make yourself some really good buckwheat and it’d be like a great meal. So in the industry that Chris is dealing with, they want, they want raw juice because they’re going to process it because most most people, there’s a concern out there that raw elderberry juice can have some glucocides in it and it can upset peoples stomachs and you know, there’s, I take it, I’ll drink it raw just because I don’t want to heat it and break down enzymes, but I know for it to be sold or, you know, when I, when I’m going to sell it to people, I’ll have heat treated it because in making it into the syrup or the tonic like I call it. So you take your berries out of the freezer, you let that raw juice come out. And so you get a certain percentage of juice, a large percentage of the juice comes out just from being frozen, and the cell walls breaking so that you got that juice, then you can take then I take my berries that are left over after that juices come out, and I put them in a steam juicer. And basically what a steam juicer is it’s from Europe, steam rises up and falls, it hits the lid and falls down and pulls the rest of that juice out. And so then that’s the secondary juice. But either way, whether it’s the steam juice, if I use a steam juicer, then that juice is already warm. And I bring the temperature down to the point that I can add honey without denaturing the the good enzymes in the honey. And for the raw juice, I heat it up. Same thing I heat it up, get it to that point where it’s it’s deantured, the enzymes and the elderberry because then that’s that’s gonna break down the glucosides and then let it cool. Add the honey, and then I add in ginger and cinnamon. Like yeah, ginger and cinnamon basically are the two things and let it simmer for a while and then strain out those things. And then that resulting product. So it’s the elderberry juice, honey, ginger and cinnamon. That’s what people call elderberry syrup. Or, like I call it elderberry tonics, then people don’t put it on their pancakes. And that’s what people like when I sell directly to people or give it to my friends and family. That’s the product that people want is is the elderberry syrup.
JASON FISCHBACH 40:08
Got it. So Chris mentioned that a lot of the co-op members can sell or sell products on their own to do you get a sense where maybe the industry might go where we have, I sort of think of the cheese world, right? You could have some really big consolidated cheese businesses. Or you can have all these farmstead creameries scattered across the countryside and have 1000 different kinds of cheese. Do you think it’s gonna be both? Or some of that? Or where do you think the industry will go here?
Natasha Simeon 42:13
I think I think it’s gonna be both of that plus a middle ground where that doesn’t, there’s not enough growers yet. What I love about the way that Chris set the co-op up is like some co-ops are set up that you have to contract with the co op, you’re not allowed to sell off by yourself, like you are beholden to the co-op. And that is not the business model, or the model that Chris wanted to do at all. In fact, he encourages people to direct sell. He just says, hey, can you can you commit a, you know, can you can you commit a certain number of what you got. So we know how much the co-op is getting. But I think that it will be just kind of like what you said with the dairy where there will be these people who have. Not now. But in the in the future. There’ll be large growers who are doing it wholesale, very mechanized, they’ve got a lot of money into their infrastructure, because they’re doing it on a large volume. And then there’ll be the growers that, you know, they have this is I don’t know if hobbies right word because it is it’s a business, and it’s a lot of work. And there is profit to be made if you if you put the work in. But there’ll be people who do this on a local level.
JASON FISCHBACH 42:37
Right. Um, what’s the grower community like? Is there a besides the co op? Is there an association or, you know, particularly in Wisconsin, what does the scene look like right now? No, the co-op is really the it is I mean, I Chris mentioned that that the website kind of because there’s become such an interest, it’s kind of broken into growing and health and, and then the berry flower side. So really, we’re such a small community right now. Basically, Chris is the hub. Like people, if people have questions, they go to Chris and Chris, Chris funnels them over on depending on what the question is. So I think as the industry grows, there will probably end up being like chats and that type of thing, but we’re just, industry is small right now. And so the co-op has been essential for that kind of communication and relationship. Yep. Got it. Um, here’s a question for you that’s super hard to answer I know, but I’d like to ask it. So, you know, so many of these new crops, hazelnuts, aronia, currants, elderberry, you name it. It’s all about trying to expand the palate of the American consumer. It’s you know, for example, that up in Bayfield, we try to get folks to eat currants, but when they go to a pick your own farm, you can pick blueberries or you can pick currants. Which one do you want? Well, they all choose blueberries. Yeah, yeah. So um, what have you found that’s been working in sort of your marketing messaging? And what are consumers responding to about these new crops, particularly elderberry that that they really like? So I actually haven’t had to, I mean, in earlier years, I would educate people. I mean, well, if I ran into a Russian or Eastern European, they were just like, so excited. And it actually was amazing. Like at Natura, there’s blackcurrants and there’s elderberries. And when those come ripe, the Russians joke that they have the Russian Telegraph, like, like, as soon as things are ripe, the entire community is there because they love them and it’s a part of the culture. And it’s not for Americans. Most Americans like like Carl said, they’ll they’ll say, oh, my mom made elderberry jam, and elderberry pies. I don’t have to because of the work that Chris has done and Terry’s done. I don’t really have to educate people anymore, because right now the supply is greater the demand is greater than the supply. Because of I think elderberries have, they do have a good flavor, but their main thing is the health benefits and I was in the natural foods, Valley Natural Foods Co-Op the other day, and I was shocked because they had kind of like a COVID end cap, and elderberry products probably consisted of 30% of that. You know they had echinacea and vitamin C, and there was elderberries taking up 30% of it. So I think the American market has caught on that elderberries are very healthy for you. Well, we got the bodies, these treasures, these wild native plants growing in our backyard that we’ve just ignored. Yeah. Our best example of what we can do would be cranberries. Right? Took those out the wild and into a crop, so all right. And they really helped, cranberries have really helped Wisconsin. I can’t remember the where they are in the ranking, but it’s really helped Wisconsin’s economy. Absolutely. Well, maybe we should wrap it up, we’re a little after 11. Carl, do you have any last questions?
Carl Duley 46:53
No, I just wanna say thank gosh, it was interesting. I learned a little bit more about elderberries. And, and I won’t pour them on my pancakes anymore.
Natasha Simeon 47:06
Well, thanks, guys. (music)
JASON FISCHBACH 47:23
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.