Monday, September 29, 2008

Vaughn and Cindy Pittz's Farmer Rancher Grant project featured on

Vaughn and Cindy Pittz, recipients of a 2005 NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant project, were recently featured by

To read SARE reports from this project, visit the SARE reporting web site here.

It's the BERRIES
September 21, 2008

Missouri Valley, Ia. - Berries packed with disease-fighting antioxidants are thriving on a western Iowa farm, with the potential to become the next big health food, according to one researcher.

Sawmill Hollow Organic Farms in Missouri Valley is cultivating about 13,000 black chokeberry shrubs and plans to plant an additional 20 acres.

The black chokeberry, often called by the scientific name aronia melanocarpa, produces deep-purple fruit, about the size of blueberries but with more health benefits. In aronia, the level of anthocyanin, an antioxidant, is about 1,480 milligrams per 100 grams of fresh fruit; in wild blueberries, 486 milligrams; and cranberries, 140 milligrams.

Aronia berries top the list of more than 100 foods that have been scientifically tested for antioxidant capacity, said Xianli Wu, a researcher and assistant professor at the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center in Little Rock, Ark. Wu has been studying the antioxidant content of aronia berries.

Other researchers have looked at how aronia affects cardiovascular disease, colon and breast cancers, liver failure and obesity, Wu said.

"I believe chokeberry has a huge potential to be a healthy food," he said. "Why people don't produce them or market them, I don't know. You need people to push that."

That's where Sawmill Hollow comes in. The farm is owned and run by Vaughn Pittz, 59, Cindy Pittz, 57, and their son, Andrew, 23.

Growing - and promoting - aronia berries has become an unexpected second career for the couple, who retired from their longtime careers about three years ago to focus on aronia. Vaughn worked for more than 25 years with Kraft Foods; Cindy was a schoolteacher for nearly 30 years.

"There was enough opportunity to start developing more aronia berry marketing ideas, and to encourage more farmers and get more people involved to create an industry," Vaughn Pittz said. "It started out just to be more or less a small family project, and it just sort of snowballed."
Festival attracts 600

They held the farm's first aronia berry festival the first weekend of September to spread the word about the healthful fruit. During two days, about 600 people visited the farm, nestled in Iowa's Loess Hills. Farmers and curious consumers from Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska came to learn more about the nutritional value of the berries and their viability as a crop.

Under an overcast sky, adults and kids walked through rows of mostly bare aronia shrubs, stretching north from the farmstead as far as the eye could see. Vaughn and Cindy Pittz had wrapped up the harvest the day before. Slightly bleary-eyed, their hands and fingernails stained purple from handpicking berries, they were nonetheless happy, enthusiastically answering questions.

They had left a few plants unharvested for the festival, the branches sagging toward the ground, heavy with fruit. Visitors plucked the berries, popping them right into their mouths.

The berries tasted tart - producing a pucker - dry, and a little bitter. Nothing like the sweet blueberries they resembled.

But Cindy Pittz couldn't get enough of them. She grabbed them by the handfuls, relishing their taste, the juice leaving her teeth and tongue slightly purple.

"It's healthy, and it energizes me," she said. "I just can't seem to stop eating them. It's good for my body and my spirit."

The Pittzes were selling their line of aronia products during the festival, which includes jelly, juice, cayenne pepper sauce, syrup, barbecue sauce and salsa. They sold out.

But this project is larger than just their business, the Pittzes say. It's been a way to help the industry grow, and meet and help educate farmers, consumers and their community.

The buzz surrounding aronia is building as more research emerges, coupled with high public interest in antioxidants and organic products, the Pittzes and others say.

Eldon Everhart, a commercial horticulture specialist with Iowa State University Extension, said there are a lot of aronia products on the market, particularly on the Internet. The biggest interest seems to be in the health food field.

Everhart has worked intensively with the Pittzes for the past five years on this project, he said. But he's also fielding calls from growers in Iowa and other states interested in learning more about aronia.

Everhart said he has "no doubt" that Sawmill Hollow is the largest commercial aronia producer in the United States. For now.

"People like the Pittzes are pioneers," Everhart said. "They're risk takers, but it's a risk that looks good."

Vaughn Pittz learned of aronia berries in 1994 while attending a food technology conference in New Orleans. He spoke to a company there that was importing aronia concentrate from Europe, even though the plant is native to North America.

The family had considered planting a small vineyard as a family project, Vaughn Pittz said. They scrapped the idea because of the intense care involved, and the uncertainty of which grape varieties would grow well in Iowa.

They chose to grow aronia instead. The family hand-planted 207 aronia berry plants in 1995.

They found that the maintenance was easy, and the shrubs grew well in an organic situation. They kept adding a couple thousand more plants every year.

"Little did we know that it would turn into such a huge deal after we started planting them and we saw how well they did in this climate, and they really produced," Vaughn Pittz said. "We figured that this was a great crop for some alternative farming.

"We made our decision right away that we wanted to be organic ... because I knew that the organic thing was going to take off. In the last 15 to 20 years, organic has just grown by leaps and bounds."

Everhart, with Iowa State Extension, said aronia is native to northeastern Iowa, in Winneshiek County, and the eastern United States. It was used by Native Americans and pioneers. Then in the early 20th century, aronia was introduced to Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, he said.

"For some reason, they began to take an interest in it," Everhart said. "Maybe part of it is because Europe seems to be a little bit ahead of us in terms of eating healthy.

"I think 10 or 15 years ago, it wouldn't have flown here. People weren't eating so healthy. Now, with more interest in eating healthy and right, I think it's got more of a chance now."

Everhart said that aronia seems, so far, to be farmer-friendly. It's resistant to insects and diseases, easy to grow organically and grows in different types of soil.

"I think the downside of the aronia is that it takes three years to start producing some crop," Vaughn Pittz said. "It takes four years before you really start to see large volumes of berries on the plant."

The more mature plants have yielded as much as 40 pounds of fruit per plant; the younger, an average of 20 pounds, he said.

The Pittzes, their relatives, friends and groups using the work as a fundraising opportunity have all helped handpick the berries. They had such a bumper crop this year that they had to actually hire help, Cindy Pittz said. Next year, her husband said, they plan to use a harvester.
Supply and demand

It was about five years ago that Vaughn Pittz realized aronia's potential, he said. But the major hurdle has been building a large enough supply to meet the amount of berries that manufacturers want to strike a deal.

Smaller food manufacturing companies require at least 40,000 pounds of berries a year, Vaughn Pittz said. While Sawmill Hollow approached that amount with this year's crop, its best so far, it will take the farm another few years to fully meet that demand.

Another factor: Mother Nature. Last year, all the berries were lost to an early frost.

The Pittzes continue to tout the opportunities, and keep expanding their product line.

"The sky's the limit with the different avenues you can go with the product," Vaughn Pittz said.

They are in the process of making aronia berry capsule supplements, aronia extract and a freeze-dried product. They plan to start selling their products at one of their company Web sites,, in the next three weeks or so, Vaughn Pittz said.

"All the products we're doing - we're focused on keeping it where we don't take heat to the product," he said. "A lot of times when you do a concentrate or pasteurization, they say it really destroys a lot of the nutrients in the product."

Charlie Caldwell, owner of Black Squirrel Vineyard and Winery in Council Bluffs, said he was inspired by the Pittzes' work to begin growing his own small crop three years ago.

Caldwell now has an acre of aronia berries, and plans to add two more acres. He said he sees the market increasing, as more people learn about the fruit.
Earthy flavors to wine

Caldwell said aronia also is good for winemaking.

"It does make a great blending agent for a weak, red wine," he said. "It adds color. It has high tannins in it, so you really kind of have to pucker up. Aronia berries give a little more earthy flavors to the wine, unless you have a very perfumey type of grape.

"I think it's going to add body and structure to a wine more than anything, plus you're going to get some nutritional benefits."

Chris Fletchall, a farmer from Sheridan, Mo., and his son, Josh, along with Rick Glew from Missouri Valley, were among the visitors to the Pittzes' farm to the festival earlier this month.

The farmers said people's interest in staying healthy makes the crop attractive.

"It's more dollars per acre than anything else we've ever seen," Fletchall said.

Vaughn Pittz said a landowner can make between $8,000 and $10,000 an acre from a mature aronia crop.

Glew read about the Pittzes' farm in his local paper and decided to put in 200 plants on his acreage this fall.

"There's such limited maintenance on them," Glew said. "For the least amount of acreage, compared to an acre of corn, it's more of a money crop. You can make the most money off this per acre than anything else you can plant."

photo of Cindy Pittz - by Joan Benjamin

Will Allen has been named a 2008 MacAthur Fellow

photo courtesy of The MacArthur Foundation

Will Allen, Founder and CEO of Growing Power, has been named a 2008 MacAthur Fellow for his work in urban farming. Growing Power has received and been involved in several NCR-SARE grants.


2008 MacArthur Fellows
Will Allen

Will Allen is an urban farmer who is transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations. In 1995, while assisting neighborhood children with a gardening project, Allen began developing the farming methods and educational programs that are now the hallmark of the non-profit organization Growing Power, which he directs and co-founded. Guiding all is his efforts is the recognition that the unhealthy diets of low-income, urban populations, and such related health problems as obesity and diabetes, largely are attributable to limited access to safe and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. Rather than embracing the “back to the land” approach promoted by many within the sustainable agriculture movement, Allen’s holistic farming model incorporates both cultivating foodstuffs and designing food distribution networks in an urban setting. Through a novel synthesis of a variety of low-cost farming technologies – including use of raised beds, aquaculture, vermiculture, and heating greenhouses through composting – Growing Power produces vast amounts of food year-round at its main farming site, two acres of land located within Milwaukee’s city limits. Recently, cultivation of produce and livestock has begun at other urban and rural sites in and around Milwaukee and Chicago. Over the last decade, Allen has expanded Growing Power’s initiatives through partnerships with local organizations and activities such as the Farm-City Market Basket Program, which provides a weekly basket of fresh produce grown by members of the Rainbow Farmer’s Cooperative to low-income urban residents at a reduced cost. The internships and workshops hosted by Growing Power engage teenagers and young adults, often minorities and immigrants, in producing healthy foods for their communities and provide intensive, hands-on training to those interested in establishing similar farming initiatives in other urban settings. Through these and other programs still in development, Allen is experimenting with new and creative ways to improve the diet and health of the urban poor.

Will Allen received a B.A. (1971) from the University of Miami. After a brief career in professional basketball and a number of years in corporate marketing at Procter and Gamble, he returned to his roots as a farmer. He has served as the founder and CEO of Growing Power, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, since 1995 and has taught workshops to aspiring urban farmers across the United States and abroad.

Information as of September 2008.

Hancock Harvest Council's Farmer Rancher Grant project featured by Farm and Dairy

The Hancock Harvest Council's 2006 NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant project was recently featured by Farm and Dairy.

The Hancock Harvest Council is a member-supported group of farmers and others who are concerned about the sustainability of the small family farm.

To read the SARE reports from this project, visit the SARE reporting web site here.


Become a do-it-yourself master
by Janelle Skrinjar
Thursday, September 25, 2008

LONDON, Ohio — Farm Science Review is always packed full of do-it-yourself workshops and how-to seminars. It provides a real education for anyone looking to set out on his own in the world of wildlife or small farming.

At the Review, you’ll find experts on everything from growing blueberries to raising pastured poultry. Here, Farm and Dairy has complied a bit of advice from those authorities, so here’s how to…

Prune fruit trees

Pruning is essential for tree strength and fruit production, according to Jim True, a Gibson County (Ind.) Purdue Extension educator.

Apple trees need pruned annually. You need to remove any limb that’s growing up, down or back toward the middle of the tree. The strongest branches grow at 90-degree angles, so those are the ones you want to keep. But keep in mind that two limbs can’t occupy the same space, so be selective about what stays and what goes. Finally, cut your limbs to outside buds to make the shoots grow out rather than up.

“If you can follow these basic principles, you can prune your trees,” True said.

The same pruning techniques apply to pear trees, but you’ll want to put spacers between the limbs on young trees in order to get the proper angles.

For blackberries, prune long growth runners and side branches. You’ll also need to get rid of the previous year’s dead growth canes in late winter or early spring.

For blueberries, prune by removing the older middle shoots, but remember that it’s OK to leave the bushes thick.

If you’ve got grapes, prune the previous year’s shoots until they have three to five nodes each. That’s 50 shoots per 8-foot vine. This will help balance fruit production and vine growth.

Start a winery

The first thing you need to do is homework.

Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, recommends visiting lots of established wineries, becoming familiar with the local Extension office and getting advice from local grape and wine organizations. If you intend to plant grapes, you also need to identify a site for that.

Next, create a business plan that covers things like cost analysis, cash flow and key employees. You’ll also need to develop a marketing plan, which will help you focus on how to sell your product.

Winchell said it’s a good idea to start the legal process early. It can take six to eight months (or longer) to get the proper permits for making and selling wine.

Once you’re ready to start thinking about the wine itself, remember that the most important
aspect is quality. A good way to get experience in making a high-quality product is to volunteer for an internship at an existing winery.

Once you start, keep your wine selection simple. It’s better to have a few varieties of good wine rather than a large variety of mediocre product.

Form a direct farm marketing group

Hancock Harvest Council in central Indiana is a new direct marketing group that’s working to overcome the barriers that separate farmers and consumers. It’s a producer organization, although non-voting membership is open to local residents.

The council started in 2004 with a few people and a broad focus. A year later, the group went through a change in personnel and progress slowed.

Then in 2006 and 2007, interest in local food surged and the council found its footing. The group defined its focus and received an $18,000 grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. It also partnered with the Hancock County Purdue Cooperative Extension Service.

Through that grant, Hancock Harvest Council reached some important milestones in 2007, according to Roy Ballard, Hancock County Extension educator. The organization put out its first farmers’ market guide and developed a Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign with help from the National Food Routes Network.

By partnering with the network, Hancock Harvest Council got help with product branding, securing an online domain name and creating standardized advertising graphics.

The council works with schools, farmers’ markets, retailers, community supported agriculture groups and restaurants to create local direct markets for its members.

Evaluate a wind energy production contract

If you’re talking to a wind energy development company about installing a wind turbine on your property, do NOT start your negotiation with this question: How much?

Instead, said Lynn Hamilton, an ag economist at Michigan State University and California Polytechnic State University, the more important question is: What is the length of the contract?

You may not think that’s negotiable, but it is. If a company tells you they need the right to the land for 50 years, “that’s baloney,” Hamilton said. Shoot instead for a contract that’s renewable or renegotiated after 25 years.

And be careful before accepting a flat payment per year, she added, unless language is included to index that payment to a rate of inflation.

Contracts are typically either for leases (occupation) or easements (rights of use). Regardless, Hamilton said, most contract points are similar: duration of the contract (a certain number of years, or even a permanent transfer of rights), landowner compensation payments, each party’s liability, and transfer of the contract to third parties. Of course, a host of other issues must also be resolved in negotiations, like who’s responsible for taking down a turbine or how quickly repairs are to be made.

The bottom line, Hamilton emphasized, is that every landowner should have his attorney look at the contract before signing.

Southern SARE Region Communications Specialist, Gwen Roland, featured on PBS

Take a journey through Louisiana’s swamps…with SARE’s very own Southern Region Communications Specialist, Gwen Roland,as she recounts her years on a self-built houseboat in the Atchafalaya Swamp.

On October 1st, PBS stations around the country will be rebroadcasting this not-to-be-missed documentary based on Gwen’s book, Atchafalaya Houseboat.

Atchafalaya Houseboat is scheduled to air Oct. 1 at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, but this could vary from one PBS station to another. To find out when your local station is airing the show, use the link below. Search by zip code or state to find your local station, then go to that station's TV schedule for October 1. If you cannot find the show listed, contact your local station directly to find out when it might be airing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

NCR-SARE Funds Bioenergy Conference in MO

Auburn University agronomist David Bransby says that agriculture will be an increasingly important player in the energy market, and the energy economy will impact production decisions of farmers throughout the world as this trend develops. "There are 2.5 barrels of oil energy equivalent in one ton of biomass; at an oil price of$100/barrel, that values biomass at $250 per ton, and this will impact farmers´ planting decisions."

Bransby will deliver the keynote address at a Bioenergy Conference to be held December 5, 2008, at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. The conference is being organized by University of Missouri Extension and Truman State University´s Agricultural Science department, with funding provided by a Professional Development Program grant from USDA´s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE).

The conference will offer professional development training on a number of bioenergy topics, including grassy and woody biomass feedstocks for cellulosic biofuel production and for co-firing with coal to produce electricity; an overview of wind energy production in the Midwest, focusing on what landowners should know about wind energy leases; financing bioenergy projects; and building community and regional support for bioenergy projects.

Bransby´s research focuses on production of switchgrass and other annual and perennial species for energy and fiber crops, as well as production of annual and perennial crops for forage production. Bransby has degrees from the University of Natal, University of Missouri, and University of South Africa.

Conference organizer Bruce Lane, Adair County Missouri Extension Livestock specialist said, "While we know that agriculture has a role to play in America´s energy future, corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel are not long-term solutions to the United States´ energy needs. Agriculture should be part of a sustainable energy future, and this conference will feature cutting-edge information on renewable energy alternatives."

The conference is targeted to high school and college agriculture faculty members, extension personnel, natural resource and conservation agency personnel, community leaders, and anyone interested in a sustainable energy future. Conference registration is $50 and includes a resource notebook, DVD, lunch, and refreshments. Additionally, a waiver of the registration fee plus a travel scholarship of $200 will be awarded to each of 40 applicants who plan to use this information in educational or outreach activities.

View the full conference program and download a registration/scholarship application online. Registration deadline is October 25, 2008. Scholarship application deadline is October 1, 2008 and recipients will be notified by October 25, 2008.

For more information, contact Michael Seipel at or 660-785-4316.