by William and Mary Weaver
There is a good market for U.S. grown elderberry juice, according to Terry Durham of River Hills Harvest in Missouri. He is already making good use of that market. His whole farm has been devoted to growing elderberries for the past seven years.
“All the elderberry juice concentrate used in the U.S. is from Europe,” he explained. “People want to buy elderberry juice for its high antioxidant levels, which is 14,500 on the ORAC Scale (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. Blackberries, in contrast, are 5347 on the ORAC scale, and sweet cherries are 3365.) In addition, the particular antioxidants found in elderberries happen to have an antiviral effect,” he told attendees at the recent Midwest Organic Farming Conference.
Durham believes that, “pills are on the way out, and natural juices and natural berries are in,” for the health conscious. He presently markets elderberry juice, elderberry jelly, and a throat soothing elderberry and herbal cordial from his River Hills Harvest website. These products can also be found in some grocery and health food stores.
Durham, who has been farming organically since 1978, has been in the forefront of finding (rather than breeding) superior elderberries strains in the wild, and figuring out how to mechanically harvest, destem, and process the berries so that they remain whole rather than crushed. Durham has been working since 1997 with the Elderberry Improvement Project, which has two new selections from the wild.
One of the named selections the Elderberry Improvement Project made from the wild is “Bob Gordon,” which came from the area of an old Native American campsite. The Native Americans used elderberries, and apparently tried to improve them. Bob Gordon has huge clusters of fruit. The individual berries are also larger than most, a little over 1/4 inch. Bob Gordon is a determinate plant, with a little higher brix than some varieties, and it is very insect and disease resistant. “We cut the stalks of Bob Gordon all the way to the ground after the ground freezes, so all the new stalks the next year will be primo canes, which bear their fruit on the end of the stem.”
Wyldewood is another named selection, collected from Oklahoma. Wyldewood is an indeterminate plant, so it is not as suitable for machine harvest.
A third named variety from the wild is called Ranch, which came from an abandoned homestead and was planted in the late 1800s. “It’s a determinate variety that is more tolerant of drought and harder soils. Ranch also bears in the shortest season of the selections I have identified,” commented Durham.
There are two problems that plague elderberries. A mite overwinters in the dormant buds. There can be up to 40,000 mites in a single bud. The mites can be controlled if the stalks are all cut to the ground after the ground freezes, and the stalks are removed.
Another problem is a leaf spot, which only occurs in very wet weather. This can be controlled organically with copper or sulfur.
You can propagate elderberries from cuttings, either in the greenhouse or in the field. “To start them in the greenhouse,” explains Durham, “I use three-inch deep containers in a tray of 18 cells per flat.”
For the planting mix, Durham enriches three cubic feet of soil with one pound of charcoal, one pound azomite, and a couple of pounds of really high quality compost, which helps to inoculate the roots with mycorrhizae.
“Elderberries greatly benefit from inoculation with mycorrhizae because they don’t have fine root systems,” Durham explained. “They have very big, chunky root systems, and so they have a hard time absorbing all the micronutrients they need from the soil. Mycorrhizae effectively increase their root zones,” he added.
A grower study was done using elderberries, black currant, and aronia to try to dermine which particular mycorrhizae are best for each. “We found out,” said Durham, “that the best thing to use is just good, finished compost to get the mycorrhizae going.”
For planting, each cutting should have two sets of two opposite buds. Put two of the opposite buds in the soil, and two of the opposite buds above. Keep the cutting watered, and the plants will take off quickly in the greenhouse. However, in the greenhouse, the top set of buds sprout to produce leaves long before the bottom set of buds produces roots.
“If you start your cuttings in the greenhouse in January, plant them out after 10 to 12 weeks. By the time we transplant it, the cutting will be a well rooted plant. Plant the cuttings in rows 12 feet apart. We put row markers on the back of a tiller, and get equally spaced rows.”
A big waterwheel planter can plant an acre per hour. The strips between the rows should be in 50 percent legumes and 50 percent grasses. Those legumes should make 100 pounds of Nitrogen a year, about half of what the elderberries need.
“We spread several semi loads of mulch around the plants. Then when we mow, we use a mulch mower with a front discharge mulcher to throw the clippings onto the row to become additional mulch.”
Keep your ground cover cut short. This lowers the humidity around the plants, and you’ll have fewer problems with diseases.
Elderberries are easy to grow and their root systems prevent soil erosion as well as aid water and air infiltration better than the grasses.
The first year after planting, cut off the flowering heads. You can harvest a few berries the second year after planting. By the third year, the plants should start to bear well. The berries are not really ripe until they’re dark and dusky. Then the maximum sweetness is there. Don’t use red or green berries.
River Hills Harvest has not only developed a mechanical harvester, they’ve also worked out a small commercial mechanical destemmer, to get all those little berries off those big heads.
“We can do 1,500 to 2,000 pounds a day very easily,” said Durham. “We like to pick half a day, and then pack and process the other half of the day.”
“It’s important to know the new regulations. If they’re for human consumption, before you can freeze the berries or send them out fresh, or do anything with them, they must be sanitized. We use a 10 percent solution of Nix all, which is somewhat similar to Hydrogen Peroxide. We must document every time we mix up this solution. If you don’t document it, according to the regulations, it’s as though you didn’t use it. . . The FDA asked about toxicity, but this was not an issue for us, because all our products are heated to 180 degrees. It’s not good to drink the juice of raw elderberries.”
Growing elderberries: a new market for U.S. farmers
by William and Mary Weaver