Birth of an industry
MISSOURI VALLEY – It was 12 years ago that Vaughn Pittz planted 207 aronia bushes on his rural Harrison County farm. It was the first U.S. farm to plant and cultivate aronia berries for commercial sale.
Since then, the Pittz family has helped 250 other farms throughout the Midwest to get started on this new niche market cash crop.
According to Pittz, six years ago the family held a field day on aronia farming with 35 people attending. That annual field day has literally exploded into the North American Aronia Berry Festival, held this year on Sept. 21 and 22, with thousands visiting the hard-to-find farm at the Y-section of a gravel and dirt road in the heart of the Loess Hills.
And in the heart of this two-day festival is Oittz’ son, Andrew Pittz, 28, the sixth-generation to farm Sawmill Hollow and the family spark plug, whose passion for aronia berries is infectious, and whose presentations about the growing industry has as many one-liners as an old-fashioned evangelist.
“Aronia has the highest antioxidant content of any fruit ever tested – three times more than blueberries.”
“We need to grow the industry judiciously and are lucky we are not a fad; if we became a fad, buyers would drain our market and then go to international markets for supply.”
“Aronia is a cross between a wine grape and a blueberry; pick it at the right time and it can mix with food.”
“Next year we’ll see growth and interest rise; in two or three seasons we may see the industry fully established.”
“Consumers need a fair deal and growers, too. We won’t under-sell each other and won’t skimp on quality.”
Andrew Pittz outlined his vision of the industry’s future for an audience of about 200 on Sept. 22 in a big tent meeting.
He said aronia has four primary markets – juice, food and wine; frozen; fresh; and nutraceutical.
He said the fresh berry market is the newest and became possible with the nation’s first stainless steel processing line on their farm that went into operation on Aug. 28.
Pittz said the line took his father 14 weeks to design. On the day they put the line into service, they were visited by state inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“They wanted to make sure we were doing it right,” Pittz said. “But they also wanted to see it, because there’s nothing like it in the U.S.”
The fresh berries that came off the line – 100 cases – sold out in a single day.
“So we know there’s a demand for fresh,” he said.
Pittz said the aronia industry has been growing “slowly from the ground up.” The slow growth had been good, he said, until more growers can get plants into the ground and more tons of berries are harvested.
He said his vision sees national and international markets.
But first, production has to ramp up.
“Michigan produces 200 to 300 million tons of blueberries,” Pittz told his audience, “and most of those are sold around the nation.
“If we could produce 20 to 30 million tons, it would be small, compared to blueberries, but it would be enough for the industry to handle.”
And he thinks the Iowa interest is in place to meet that production goal.
“Ninety percent of Google searches for aronia,” Pittz said, “is coming from Iowa.”
The Pittz operation markets organic aronia and sells wholesale through Whole Foods and Hy-Vee grocery stores.
He also foresees tertiary markets developing from aronia processing such as berry skins used for natural dyes and fertilizer.
To get the industry moving in the same direction, Pittz is calling for a cooperative of all aronia growers, with producers receiving 90 percent of contractual prices.
“This is not just about value-added agriculture,” Pittz said, “or agritourism.”
Instead, he said, Iowa aronia is setting itself up to compete nationally, on grocery shelves, against other national natural food brands.
“The market needs many more berries,” Pittz said. “Iowa needs to grow more and we need more growers throughout the Midwest.”