Aronia advocate includes FD in 99-county Iowa tour

Andrew Pittz planted an aronia bush at the Fort Museum Tuesday – stop No. 63 on his quest to plant at least one of the berry-bearing perennials in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Pittz is on a mission to familiarize Iowans the plant his family has been growing since 1997 at Sawmill Hollow Family Farm, the first commercial aronia operation in North America.

While Pittz is undertaking his monthlong tour, he is also actively propagating organic aronia plants at Sawmill Hollow near Missouri Valley. On Tuesday, he was in the field by 5:15 a.m.

Aronia berries, which are native to North America, are touted as a superfruit, with more antioxidants than blueberries, pomegranates and goji berries. Research has shown the berries to have anti-inflammatory traits and the ability to help reduce blood pressure. All of which is fortunate because the berries, by themselves, are extremely astringent.

Fortunately, Sawmill Hollow produces more than 40 products, Pittz said, running “the gamut from gourmet food items to a high-tech supplement line” including freeze-dried powder and aronia wheat grass powder. For the health products, “taste becomes a secondary consideration,” he said.

For most food items, the berries are mixed with other fruit juices or purees to lessen the astringency.

In fact, Pittz’s tour will wind up on June 28 – his birthday – in Indianola, the site of La Vida Loca winery, which produces a “gently sweetened” aronia wine.

Mary Jo Wagner, Iowa State University Extension program coordinator for Webster County, was on hand Tuesday for the local planting.

At a Extension workshop on aronia berries held earlier this year in Fort Dodge, “we had something like 48 people who had expressed an interest,” Wagner said. “We originally thought we’d have 15 or 20.”

Another aronia grower, who is an ISU Master Gardener, presented the program, talking about his experiences and resources, Wagner said.

“A lot of people who came.. were not necessarily large farmers,” she said. “You can put a lot of plants on a small area. The workshop was a huge success for us. We had a lot of emails wanting more information.”

That would not have been the case as recently as a few years ago when Sawmill Hollow’s product was still virtually unknown.

“No one had heard of an aronia berry,” said Pittz, a graduate of Texas A&M University.

In 2011, he set a goal of having Hy-Vee distribute Sawmill Hollow products in two to four of its stores. He said he offered to drive to any Hy-Vee that would carry the products and personally offer educational information and demos. Pittz said he put more than 100,000 miles on his odometer, but Hy-Vee – the first retailer to carry Sawmill Hollow products – now distributes them in more than 120 stores – including Fort Dodge.

Pittz’s efforts to promote aronia berries have received both national press and plenty of statewide support, he said, including Gov. Terry Branstad’s declaration of September as “Aronia Berry Month” and aronia berries’ inclusion in programming for the Healthiest State Initiative.. On Sept. 21 and 22, Sawmill Hollow will host the North American Aronia Berry Festival, which features 30 Loess Hills artisans and small business. Last year’s festival drew 4,000 visitors.