The Small Farms program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a monthly podcast to those interested in all things small farm. Listen in!
About The Farmer
Meet Corey Hillebo, an aronia berry farmer from Polk City, Iowa. Together, with his dad, Scott, they produce corn, soybeans, and raise wean to finish pigs. Prior to working full time on the farm, Corey was employed by Pioneer which is where he heard about aronia berries on the radio. Entrepreneurial in nature, Corey became very intrigued by producing aronia berries. He began attending conferences around aronia berries and learning whatever he could. In 2014 Corey and his father planted 15 acres of aronia berry plugs.
Aronia berries are planted with a tree/plug planter; they grow very similarly to a hedge row. Corey planted four to six inch plugs in a row roughly spaced two to three feet from one another and fourteen feet between each row. A vineyard grass mixture was planted between rows as well as mulching with the help of a local mulching service and Maxwell’s FFA Chapter to help maintain weed control. Based off Corey’s experience, harvest typically takes place in late August and early September but aronia berries take two to three years to produce a fruit and around seven to ten years to witness full potential of the plant so it is a bit of a waiting game. Although there may not be a harvest during year one or two it is important to maintain the soil. In year one, there is a lot of weeding and hoeing done by hand which is very time consuming and laborious. Once the plants bear fruit they are to be harvested. This is the fun part! The Hillebo’s rent or hire someone with a special harvester from Poland. The harvester is pulled behind a tractor and goes over the rows while rubber coated fingers gently shake the berries from the branches. The berries fall onto a conveyor and are moved to the back of the machine where air is pushed through to minimize any bugs, twigs, and/or leaves that may be attached to the berry. From here the berries are loaded into 35 pound totes, stacked on a pallet, and immediately refrigerated to begin the cooling process. This helps with maximizing the shelf life. Once on the refrigerated truck they are shipped to the processing station where they are destemmed, cleaned, sorted, boxed and frozen until use.
Corey works with the National Aronia Growers based in Northwest Iowa to market his aronia berries. Unfortunately for most aronia berry growers there is a “lack of market,” than anything but many growers are working to expand the current market. Aronia berries do not have the publicity in North America as they do in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe aronia berries are recognized for their high antioxidants and other health benefits. Here in the U.S., we are still in the process of educating the population that we can grow them and do not need to import them. Education is also needed on the health benefits of aronia berries - they are higher in antioxidants than acai, gogi, noni, and elderberries and 3 to 4 times higher in antioxidants in blueberries. Antioxidants are beneficial for lowering blood pressure, assisting with heart disease and fighting free radicals which can help fight cancer and reduce aging. You will also find that aronia berries are packed with fiber. The National Aronia Growers are working very hard at creating a market from the ground up. A major factor that is slowing this process down comes from the lack of money and resources to manufacture high quality products to sell.
For those who may be interested in growing aronia berries Corey has some advice!
1 “Walk before you run.” The process it takes until you reach the point where you understand the full potential of your plant is a long time. Take caution before you jump in at full force. Try starting with a few plants or acres before expanding.
2 “...talk to several people that have been in the business for awhile.”
3 “Get your soils right; fertility and condition wise” Aronia berries have the capability to grow in most midwest soils, but the goal is for them to be grown at maximum production. Stray away from throwing this crop on poor ground. There is potential for this market to prosper and when that day comes they will produce the best in good, fertile soil. Also, you do not replant this crop every year like a typical midwest row crop. You are limited to one chance at plating the bushes. Take your time and provide an environment that will allow them to meet their highest capabilities.
One way Corey adapted his operation to better meet the needs of aronia berries was implement a drip line irrigation system. This is not a necessity, but with some other advances they were making on their farm it was easy to incorporate. Again, this is not a necessity but when speaking of taking care of the soil this created an easy process for fertilizer application.
4 “Weeds, weeds,weeds!!!” These plants will not be able to compete with extreme weed population. The aronia berries will need all the nutrients they can get. An expensive option could be using specialized planters from Italy that lay a heavy duty plastic barrier prior to planting the plugs, or for Corey, He has found that some pre-emergence herbicides specifically labeled for aronia berries has helped.