Monday, September 29, 2008

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

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

To read SARE reports from this project, visit the SARE reporting web site here.
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It's the BERRIES
By DAWN SAGARIO
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, www.aronianation.com, 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

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