Aronia Berries: The Next Açaí?


Photo by Andrew Pittz

The aronia berry is a dark purplish fruit that grows in clusters of 12 on handsome green shrubs. When eaten off the vine it's bitter—for good reason, many call it a "chokeberry." But for hardcore devotees the astringency is well worth it.

These relatively unknown berries also pack a serious nutritional punch, including antioxidant levels that are off the charts. Most consumers, moreover, are likely to soften the blow, consuming aronia berries in the form of jelly, syrup, wine, or even muffins or cookies. I go for the extract, which I put in water three times daily.

However one digests aronia berries, it's more likely than not that the product came from Eastern Europe, where thousands of acres of perennial aronia bushes are cultivated. The odd thing about this eastern European origin is that aronia berries are actually native to the American Midwest. They grew wild when Europeans explored the area in the sixteenth century, and they continue to grow wild today.

The annual Aronia Festival, held on the farm each September, has become an instant tradition.

But we generally eat the cultivated varieties. The berry left the United States in the early twentieth century, exploded in popularity as Romanians and Bulgarians bred it for higher yield and better taste, and came back to America as a sort of prodigal son, transformed and seeking redemption on home soil, in 1997.

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?

Pittz was blunt about why Sawmill Hollow spends so much time encouraging others to join the impending aronia boom: "We want to give all these people a shot."

Which makes me wonder: is Pittz just too sweet a guy for this sour berry? I mean, can a small farm growing a niche crop and encouraging others to do the same—and, in some cases, even subsidizing the newcomers—survive in an agricultural environment bent on the hard logic of the bottom line? What's going to keep a neighboring farmer from growing ever larger, undercutting the competition, and cashing in to, oh, Kraft Foods? Will youthful idealism survive corporate pragmatism?

I shared these concerns with Pittz, who responded to my doubts with something of an evasion, but one that seemed to put everything he's doing in perspective. He explained, "There's no way we can't be doing what we're doing."