Organic Broadcaster

American elderberry can offer perennial profits to small-scale farmers

By Pete Widin

Elderberry plants have a “decumbent” drooping habit, which can help protect berries from bird predation. Photo by Pete Widin

Elderberry offers so much more than the cold-season syrups we see popping up everywhere, from farmers markets to Walmart. American Elderberry brings so much to the table because of its deep and varied history of use as discovered by the Indigenous people of North America. Today, with diverse markets for high-quality elderberry flowers and fruit, this native perennial crop deserves a closer look for small-scale growers wanting to diversify in a profitable and in-demand niche.

Over the years, I’ve been searching for “holy grail” crops that check so many boxes it doesn’t make sense not to grow them. While American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis) isn’t for every operation, it just might suit your particular goals and situation. It’s not often we come upon crops seeing a veritable explosion of markets from brewing and distilling to herbal medicine and dairy-aisle staples.

It is important to honor the commitment of a few MOSES regulars who helped this crop build the momentum growers can enjoy today. Terry Durham has been part of the MOSES Conference since the beginning. You’ve probably seen the River Hills Harvest table in the exhibit hall, where Terry and fellow elderberry spokesperson Chris Patton (Midwest Elderberry Cooperative) hand out samples of the River Hills cold-pressed elderberry juice and other preserves made from berries grown across Missouri and the Midwest.

The long hours Terry and Chris put in over the past decade have created a broad buzz across multiple markets where American Elderberry is in higher demand than production can supply. The Midwest Elderberry Cooperative, a grower-led organization connecting the elderberry community with the resources and buyers that growers need to be successful, had 150,000 pounds of bulk frozen elderberry order requests in early September 2020. The price ranged from $2 to $5/lb, depending on fruit quality and organic status. At the same time, a single herbal medicine company was looking to purchase 10,000 pounds of dried flowers at $30/lb.

With this much demand through one small cooperative organization, imagine the possibilities for local and regional networking with brewers, distillers, and producers of food and health products of all scales in your own area. This doesn’t even include the $8-10/lb that many elderberry growers are easily getting for their fresh and frozen berries via on-farm sales to home consumers who make their own syrups, jams, and juices.

Now let’s bring things down to the ground. I understand the risks of romanticizing a shiny new crop and want to make sure I give you the real low-down on what it takes to be part of these growing markets. Elderberry has the potential to bring real, long-term economic vitality to our rural communities, ecological integrity to land management goals, and a higher standard of human health as a preventive medicine. But these benefits are only possible and sustainable with a clear understanding of the day-to-day demands of an elderberry operation.

The first consideration, as I’m sure you’ve been thinking, is how does this crop fit in with an existing operation or existing lifestyle that’s already busy? The simple answer is that some flexibility and adjustment is required. The advantage of this crop is that, unlike annuals, it’s going to come back up every spring without having to plant again. The productive lifespan of an elderberry plant is thought to be about 20 years, similar to blueberries.

However, elderberries don’t take nearly as much intensive pruning as blueberries to maintain their vigor. Elderberry stems are cut at the ground during the dormant season. Depending on the variety, all stems are cut (determinates like Bob Gordon and Ranch) or the third-year stems are selectively pruned (indeterminates such as Wyldewood, Adams II, and Johns). Second-year growth is the most productive cane stage for American Elderberry. European Elder is a whole other story, and this article is focused on our native species.

When selecting a site for elderberry, there are some common assumptions that I’d like to nip in the bud (pun intended). While you’ll often see elders growing in quite wet places, this often isn’t the ideal place for them if you’re looking to grow at a substantial scale. Elderberry is most easily grown and harvested in rows or alleys, spaced 12 feet apart on-center. With an average field size from one to five acres, you’re going to want equipment and perhaps animal access for seasonal weed management and fertility inputs. Soils that flood for a couple of weeks seasonally aren’t a huge deal, but if you can’t get your equipment in there come spring green-up or harvest (May and August-September in Minnesota), weed and grass competition can really affect plant productivity. Not to mention that spotted wing drosophila (SWD) fruit flies love the still and humid air that overgrown grasses provide at the base of your prized plants.

Well-drained, fertile soils are what you’re after for elderberry. While sandy soils or clay won’t preclude you from growing this crop, high organic matter and good drainage/soil porosity are preferred. It’s quite common to use former corn-soy rotation fields for elderberry plantings. For new plantings, baseline soil testing and balancing with cover crops and select inputs, when necessary, are essential to ensure real success.

Rather than jump headlong into elderberry, I recommend that potential growers step back, create a budgeted plan of action, and get that soil life and fertility naturally boosted before planting.

There are other important considerations at the outset as well. Elderberry is a full-sun crop. This may be obvious to some, but many people I talk to ask if they can successfully grow a marketable crop in partial shade or woodland conditions. A commercial berry operation is going to need full sun to thrive.

This plant also benefits from irrigation—not only during the first couple seasons of establishment—to aid in fruit set and ripening. With the unpredictability of our summers here in Minnesota, I always recommend laying down drip-tubing on the ground before planting happens. If you have rolling or sloped topography, pressure-compensating drip is going to ensure the rows get even water as well. This honestly isn’t a huge expense when considering the potential downside to manual irrigation and exposure to drought for this shallow-rooted plant. I estimate about $500/acre for basic irrigation needs here.

Pests and disease in elderberry vary by location. There are a few major players to consider. Backyard and farm-scale fruit growers in the Midwest have likely heard of SWD, and the delicate elderberry fruit is particularly susceptible to this pest. SWD emerges and begins injecting fruit with its eggs around July 4th here in Central Minnesota. Deer and birds also are a major consideration, and the pressure any grower experiences really depends on the local populations of these critters. Some growers have little pressure while others are hit hard, requiring 8’ fencing around fields and netting over the top. Deer fencing is the bigger necessity of these two in my experience, to be put in place before initial planting. Funding assistance may be available in your area through NRCS and local Soil & Water Districts due to the tillage-reducing nature of this perennial crop.

Other issues growers can experience include leaf-feeding mites, stem borers, Japanese beetles, viruses, and the very odd-looking elderberry rust fungi. While this sounds like a big list, these aren’t a given issue for every operation. Most pest and disease pressures in elderberry have effective organic methods for control. The only untreatable issue is viral infection, and you can help prevent this by purchasing only certified virus-free stock from a grower who has had their plants inspected during the growing season by their state department of agriculture.

Planting and establishment are straightforward for elderberry. The difference really comes from the current state of your field—fertility, existing cover, and desired vegetation between rows. Some successful growers have found that laying irrigation and planting the bare cuttings as soon as soil is workable in the spring is the easiest route.

So, what happens come harvest time? It’s one thing to have a great crop of flowers and/or fruit to look forward to, but the fact is that many growers find themselves at a loss for the labor and infrastructure that’s needed to get a great crop to the willing buyers.

“Do what you can take care of with your family [and friends],” recommended River Hills Harvest’s Durham. “Two people can pick two acres, de-stem, and get the berries packaged.”

Both flowers and fruit are pretty quick to spoil once they’re ready to harvest. If you’re going for a high-quality product, that’s where things get tricky. For the fruit—the more perishable crop—waves of picking are often done every couple of days as more cymes (the structure bearing the fruit) ripen as fully as possible. Berries on a cyme don’t always ripen evenly, and the 20+ cymes on a particular plant will rarely, if ever, ripen all at once.

De-stemming is an important part of the harvest and packing process. Buyers, whether they’re home consumers or wholesale, don’t want stems or unripe fruit in their berries. Therefore, all berries are de-stemmed either with a machine, such as The Elderberry De-stemmer [TED] from the River Hills Harvest group, or with hand screens for smaller plantings of an acre or less. Berries are then put through a weak sanitizing solution and rinsed twice to cleanse them for food safety and remove bits of stem and unripe berries, which often float. This method was developed by Durham in collaboration with the University of Missouri, which has also done some amazing health research and plant breeding as part of their funded elderberry efforts. Food safety is a critical part of this process, to ensure that the 2,500+lbs per acre can be sold to many potential buyers.

This first-year elderberry was planted as a hardwood cutting 3 months prior. Cuttings are a third marketable crop for many growers. Photo by Pete Widin

Elderberry has also received some exciting funding across the Midwest this past year, from University-level research to nonprofit organizations. Savanna Institute is currently working on an Elderberry Report, which will identify the fundamentals and bottlenecks of a successful industry in the Midwest. David Bruce is leading the institute’s elderberry efforts.

“With elderberry, there’s still a lot to figure out yet in terms of costing models, and what is that true market price where you’re making a profit on it in the long term,” Bruce said. While many growers are making profits in the wholesale and consumer markets, it’s important to consider how we can ensure small family farms are the key producers of this in-demand and adaptable crop well into the future.

Elle Sullivan works with a field-buffer planting of elderberry on Lily Springs Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, located on the ancestral lands of Dakota, Anishinaabe, and Ho-Chunk Nations. The farm focuses on flower harvests, which are de-stemmed, dried, and sold to a tea maker in the Twin Cities.

“The Indigenous peoples of this region have been using elderberry for thousands of years,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t discover it, and it’s important to honor this heritage that we’re fortunate enough to be a part of.”

When all is said and done, I believe elderberry is here to help us heal ourselves and the land. Science is finding elderberry can have a role to play in treating Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and Influenza, reconfirming Indigenous peoples’ respect for this amazing plant.

 

Pete Widin, MLA, is a landscape planner at Artisan Environments LLC in Stillwater, Minnesota, and has a 2-acre U-pick blueberry operation. 

 

 

From the November | December 2020 Issue

 

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