Horticulture Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach
Aronia, also commonly referred to as black chokeberry, is a woody perennial shrub known for its dark black berries that are high in antioxidants. Because it is fairly easy to grow and has minimal pest issues, aronia is gaining in popularity across the state of Iowa, particularly for acreage owners looking for alternative uses of small plots of land.
The commercial aronia industry is rapidly evolving and maturing. As recently as just a few years ago, the entire industry was based on small plantings one to five acres in size, certified organic, and hand harvested. Today, the aronia industry mirrors commodity crops as it becomes mechanized. There are several mechanical harvesters in the state and cooperatives purchasing produce for resale into the international wholesale market. Many new plantings are 10 to 20 acres in size or larger to meet economies of scale to justify planting and harvest equipment.
As an acreage owner, if you are thinking about planting aronia for sale into the wholesale market, there are two key questions you should ask before proceeding to plant:
1. Is my site suitable for aronia production and if not, how do I make it better?
Site selection is critical to successful fruit production. Choosing a good site and adequately preparing it before planting can mean the difference of a crop in three years or not producing a crop for five years. While plants will tolerate a wide range of soils, the ideal site is well-drained, deep, flat, and moderately fertile. Drainage is one of the most critical factors for selecting a site for fruit crops. Well-drained soils are ideal for healthy, productive, and long lasting plants. In much of the state, soils with less than ideal drainage can be tile drained to improve drainage. The Web Soil Survey can be used to evaluate site drainage and depth of soil provided the site has not be previously disturbed by practices such as building a house or road. Level fields allow for easier access with mechanical harvesters and general maintenance.
A soil test will provide estimates of fertility. The ideal soil should be slightly acidic and have a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5. In Iowa, we assume 20 lbs of nitrogen is released into the soil each year for each percent organic matter and is available for plant uptake. Fruits do not require a lot of organic matter; 2 to 4 percent is adequate for aronia. Fruits will tolerate higher amounts of organic matter but because the nitrogen released from organic matter is released through microbial decay, it is released from late spring through late fall. When organic matter is too high, it can keep plants actively growing into the fall rather than hardening off and going dormant. Canes and fruit buds that have not adequately gone dormant are more susceptible to winter damage. This issue is further exasperated when we experience a warm fall and a sudden cold snap. In general, 10 to 20 lbs per acre of nitrogen should be applied annually to help with early spring growth. Phosphorus and potassium can be added if low. It is best to correct soil deficiencies before plants are in the ground as soil amendments need to be physically incorporated into the soil to be effective.
An ideal site is weed free. The greatest pests in aronia though are weeds; especially during the establishment years. Weeds will compete with plants for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight. Competition from weeds will delay plants from reaching maturity in three years to reaching maturity in four or five years. Many acreage owners will plant into old alfalfa fields or pastures where weed pressure is very high, especially after it has been tilled. It is preferable to spend a year decreasing the weed seed bank before planting any perennial crop to minimize competition to the newly planted crop. This is often achieved through a combination of cover crops and fallow tillage. It is also recommended to use a plastic or landscape fabric mulch weed barrier during the establishment years as hand weeding quickly becomes discouraging.
2. What is the aronia market and what kind of income can I expect to generate?
This is currently the greatest challenge of growing aronia in Iowa. It is not like corn and soybeans or any other fruit and vegetable for that matter. With most crops, there is essentially a guaranteed market whether it is to the elevator or farmers markets. While a small percentage is sold in the fresh market or to wineries, the astringent flavor of aronia limits its use in the fresh market. The majority of it is processed and sold into the juice industry but this market is still developing. There are a couple cooperatives purchasing fresh produce. These cooperatives are paying $1.00 to $2.00 per pound for fresh, delivered fruit. What you can actually earn though depends on harvesting, transportation, storage costs, fruit cleaning, in addition to other inputs. The industry is rapidly scaling up to mechanical harvesting and moving away from hand harvesting. With achievable yields greater than 5 tons per acre, it is not difficult to see why. However, mechanical harvesting is not free. The cost of mechanical harvesting includes transportation to and from the field at approximately $1.00 per mile round trip as well as a per pound cost of approximately $0.50 to $0.60 per pound harvested. Expect to pay an additional $0.30 to $0.40 per pound to clean and de-stem the fruit. In some cases, cleaning can be done locally at the storage site but if not, there is additional transportation costs. Following harvest, growers will need to pay transportation to the coop and/or cold storage fees in addition to in-season expenses for mowing, fertilizing, pest control, and irrigation.
For more information, see AgMRC.