The lone farmer who welcomed the cultivated berry was Vaughn Pittz. Having recently retired from Kraft Foods, Pittz joined his wife, Cindy, in drafting their 11-year-old son, Andrew, to help them plant 207 aronia bushes—a breed called Viking (it was bred in Scandinavia). The family undertook this unprecedented mission in Missouri Valley, Iowa, on a 150-acre stretch of rolling hills they call Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm. It was, as Andrew (now 24), put it, initially conceived by his parents as "a retirement farm."
Today, however, the Pittz family is working harder than ever. Andrew, a horticulture and sociology graduate from Texas A&M University, oversees the shrubs, of which there are now thousands. "Retirement farm" just doesn't fit the bill for what Andrew and his parents are running: the oldest and largest aronia berry farm in the United States.
The Pittzes have nothing but respect for their neighboring corn and soy farmers. But still, they aim to be more than a sustainable stitch in a blanket of agribusiness conformity. They want to teach the land of "big ag" that agricultural life is about more than conventional cash crops. Indeed, their gorgeous berries can do more than improve our health. As the quietly impassioned Andrew Pittz insists, growing the crop organically can "save our earth by restoring our soil."
When describing his farm, Andrew speaks in terms of morals rather than margins. "We're a sense of place business," he said, by way of elucidating his corporate philosophy. Influenced by the "land-community" ethic of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, Andrew's aim is "to do something special for our area," which means eliminating the pesticides that he believes killed his grandfather, who was a corn and soy farmer.
And no matter what the ledger book says, profits are everywhere. When Pittz sees biodiversity increase on his property, he sees the kind of profit that no amount of money can match.
Okay—so it's all a bit idealistic. But locals are listening. In addition to leading several annual conferences on organic aronia berry agriculture, the family disseminates its knowledge through what is essentially a harvest hootenanny. The annual Aronia Festival, held on the farm each September, has become an instant tradition—contributing, no doubt, to the Pittzes winning the 2009 Community Business of the Year award in Missouri Valley. The first year they held the festival, in 2006, a hundred visitors wandered in to eat, learn about, celebrate, and pick aronia berries. Last year, 1400 stormed the gates.
More to the point, as a direct result of the family's generosity, other farmers are starting to grow the berry. "We want to democratize it as much as possible," Andrew Pittz explained.
Very inspiring stuff, I thought, as I got to know him. But I must confess that as Pittz talked, my inner MBA grew restless. I mean, what kind of business strategy is this? Why spread the secrets of your trade? Why not corner the market, undertake a health-benefit PR campaign, and go to the bank like detoxified gangbusters?