MAGNOLIA - Dr. Eldon Everhart, Iowa State University field specialist in horticulture, was kept very busy at the Farm Progress Show in rural Boone last week, answering questions about what could be Iowa's next cash crop.
A deciduous shrub, Aronia berry has the genus name of Aronia melanocarpa. Although sometimes called black chokeberry, it is not chokecherry, which is the genus Prunus.
Native to the eastern U.S. and Iowa, Aronia was well known to Native Americans and early settlers. Nowadays, it is only found in one county in northeastern Iowa.
Early in the 20th century, it was introduced to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, where it was developed into a commercial fruit.
Improved cultivars selected in Russia were reintroduced into this country in the last 10 years. Aronia is well suited to organic fruit production and ornamental landscape plantings in Iowa.
Resurging interest in Aronia berries has come about because of its health benefits and as a natural organic food coloring. The dark pigment is very stable and does not turn brown.
It belongs to that group of purple berries that has been making news in today's nutrition world. Higher in antioxidants than blackberries, blueberries, cranberries and many other berries that are grown commercially in the U.S., it fights cancer and heart disease.
Capable of producing in dry or wet years, disease and insect resistant, the berry appears to be the right crop for today's farmer.
Iowa currently has 25 Aronia berry growers and the list is growing. This gem of a berry may have remained lost if it weren't for Vaughn and Cindy Pittz.
Attending a food show in New Orleans, Vaughn Pittz was captivated by what he saw, heard and tasted. He said he convinced his wife that this was the right niche for them.
Feeling more like pioneers than farmers, the Pittzes immersed themselves into learning more.
Beginning with just over 200 bushes in 1995, the plantation now boasts over 13,000 shrubs. The Pittzes can expect to harvest 20-35 pound per mature plant.
"It's a bumper harvest this year," says Cindy Pittz. "Because of weather, the harvest is running a few weeks late." The Pittzes measure the Brix number of the berries to know when to harvest. When berries are fully ripe they are delicious fresh picked from the plant.
The Pittzes have worked with an area nursery to propagate plants. They are also dedicated to helping others grow the Aronia berry.
The Pittzes have developed a multitude of products from the berries. Their unpasturized Aronia juice is bottled by a local apple orchard owner in plastic jugs made from Iowa corn.
Aronia berries also make a delicious jelly, ice cream and yogurt flavoring, barbecue sauce and tea, they said.
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