DES MOINES - Midwest aronia growers who gathered in Des Moines last week were looking for ways to better grow and market their product.
They know it's an uphill battle.
Although the berries are considered a "superfruit," loaded with antioxidants, most people have never heard of aronias.
And, those who have probably know that the berries, while quite healthy, are less than tasty on their own.
At the Back to Basics and Beyond Midwest Aronia Association conference, about 140 people listened April 4-6 as speakers and vendors explained the basics of growing aronias, research on the berries' health values and consumer uses for the tiny purple fruits.
"As growers, each of us has the responsibility for coming up with our own business plan," MAA President Jim Dallmeyer told the group. "As growers, we seem to be going in two directions."
FD program will be April 23
Larry Turner, from Winding Creek Gardens, Belmond, will present a program on growing aronia berries at the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Office.
Topics will include cost and planting; growing and care; harvesting and storage; and marketing.
The program will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 23 at the Extension office in the Crossroads Mall, 217 S. 25th St., Suite C12.
For more information or to reserve a seat for the program, contact Mary Jo Wagner, 576-2119.
While he and wife Marti have about 600 plants at Thistle Creek Orchard in Peoria, Ill., others in the MAA have 20,000 bushes, he said.
"That's not the guy you're going to see at the farmers market," said Dallmeyer. "Each of us has to decide what market we're going to be in."
Jon Pilcher, of Crete, Ill., shared his success story, one that began, he said, when he realized there are no elevators for aronia berries.
Pilcher said he backed into marketing after seeing cornfields on two sides of his property and a turf farm behind it.
He began reaching out to buyers, he said, but quickly realized "the buyers knew nothing about the fruit."
For all they knew, Pilcher said, aronia "could be a South American pack animal."
When he first began his marketing attempts, he didn't have a crop yet, didn't know how much of a crop he would have and didn't have samples to send to prospective buyers.
"I was marketing to buyers who didn't know what it was with an indefinite crop," Pilcher said.
He quickly found that he was educating buyers while trying to qualify them.
"Lessons come from marketing mistakes," Pilcher said, such as when he sent samples of bulk frozen berries to a prospective buyer. He also meant to send an email explaining that aronia berries are a tart fruit, along with some recipes. Unfortunately, the berries arrived first.
The buyer's response: "Well, they're not real sweet."
That, Pilcher said, was the end of that business relationship.
The berries, which are also sometimes described as astringent, can however, be combined with other fruit juices, baked into muffins, incorporated into flavored butters, dried and sweetened like cranberries or integrated into jams, jellies and wines, for example.
A company in Omaha uses aronias in its gummy chews, which it describes as an "antioxidant snack," with 100 calories per approximately 1-ounce package, no fat, no gluten, no dairy and GMO-free.
"We have to develop new products and take them into the market," Pilcher said.
Mary Mathiasen, of Harvest Moon Farms, St. Charles, is among the growers who are doing just that. Mathiasen was at the conference selling Aro (pronounced arrow), an aronia beverage that incorporates seven other natural fruit juices.
The result is a deep-purple drink that contains no sugar or artificial sweeteners, but is neither astringent nor overly tart. Aro promotes its beverage as a health drink, high in anthocyanins and polyphenols, compounds that provide a high level of antioxidants. It is also bottled with a heat-packing method that eliminates the need for preservatives.
"Everyone kind of focuses on the healthy components," said Mark Brand, a horticulture professor from the University of Connecticut.
But researchers are working "to try to do things to improve the flavor," he said.
Among those efforts is an attempt to cross the plants with pear genes.
Brand said there is no way to tell if that will result in a small purple pear or a large chokeberry that's sweeter. But the concept "is not that unlikely," he said.
"I'm pretty sure we can do that," Brand said.