Prepare to pucker up. Because this tart little treat of a blog will show you the sweet benefits of this antioxidant packed fruit grown right here in Iowa.
Aronia berries or black chokeberries are native to the eastern U.S. and do well on plains of the Midwest and are grown throughout Iowa. They are about the size of blueberries and have a rich dark purple color. They grow in clusters or bunches, kind of like grapes. The plants are woody shrubs and will grow up to eight feet tall.
While this little berry can be sweet and full of juice, like the name chokeberry implies, it is also bitter and astringent tasting. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that when eaten creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth. The berries can be used in cooking which lessens the tannins or can be used to make wine or jam.
Why these fruits have received some notoriety over the past several years is because of their potential health benefits. There have been studies to suggest a positive impact on cancer prevention, diabetes management, organ health, blood pressure, coronary disease, and more. There has even been a study that suggests aronia could help manage obesity (the study was on rats). The key is that these little berries pack a powerful punch of all the good stuff. They are loaded with vitamin C, folate, vitamins B, and more. They also have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants present in berries.
As a specialty crop, aronia berries will probably never compete with corn and soybeans here in Iowa. But the market is growing and an increasing number of farmers are planting aronia patches. The plant is very hardy and relatively drought resistant, pest resistant, and disease resistant. It adapts well to a wide range of soil types and conditions though well-drained soil is most ideal.
Aronia work well for small scale production because they are relatively low maintenance. Mowing around the bushes helps keep the weeds down so they don’t have to compete for water, nutrients, or sunlight. They don’t require spraying, watering, or much other care after the initial planting. Because many aronia plots are small, harvest can be done by hand. As the berries grow in bunches, it is easy to strip the berries off quickly. A five gallon bucket (approximately 22 pounds of berries) can be filled in roughly an hour.
Aronia are one of many options offered as u-pick fruit where anyone can pick their own fruit in season. When picking, the aronia berries do stain your hands, but the color washes right off with a little soap and water. The U-Pick season is winding down but you can still find apples and some other late season fruits. Find a farm near you by using this directory: http://www.pickyourown.org/IA.htm. Contact the farm directly to learn what fruit is in season and what prices/fees are for picking. It is a great family activity.
For larger fields, mechanical harvest is available. It does come at a price and may cost up to $0.60 per pound of berries harvested. Berry harvesters for blueberries, raspberries, aronia, and similar berries will use tines or flappers to release the berries. The machine drives over the tops of the bushes with the flappers on each side. The berries fall into a catchment system and are carried to bins via conveyor belt. The trick of mechanical harvest is to provide enough force to remove the berry from the stem, but to be gentle enough to not bruise, crush or otherwise damage the berries. There are a couple different systems that are used for this mechanical harvest. Check out the videos and take a look at the mechanical planting system as well.
One of our summer teacher professional development workshops had the opportunity to tour an aronia berry farm that was scaling up. Levi’s Indigenous Fruit Enterprises (LIFE) supplies the berries to a number of grocery stores and cooperatives in south central Iowa. Many of the aronia berries also go to make jams, jellies, and wine. The proprietor – Levi – also grows a number of native fruits like tart cherries, paw paw fruit, and others.
Levi has also invested in sorting machines to help him package and sell the berries. While the berries are all relatively similar in size, the sizes can still vary. Sorting machines like this old blueberry sorter will help group like sized berries together so they can be packaged and sold accordingly. Larger berries might go whole to grocery stores and consumers. Smaller berries might get turned into jams, wine, or juice. These machines also help remove any leaves, stems, or other debris that might have been collected during harvest. Technology on farms comes in all shapes and sizes and it is technology like this sorter that help make one aspect of the job easier.
These tart little berries might not be for everyone, but adding a few to your diet could have some health benefits. And the bonus is that it is an Iowa crop! So enjoy the pucker!