Midwest Elderberry Cooperative
Growing demand for fruit production, with strong potential benefits to ecosystems are causing researchers and farmers to take a second look at perennial berries as one of the many ways to improve health, promote local foods and enhance soil health and water quality.
Christopher Patton, founder and president of the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative based in Minneapolis, started up his effort in 2012. While he will say he wasn’t the first, Patton definitely is one of the few who have seen the market potential for elderberry farming in the United States and has doggedly worked to get that market off the ground.
Despite being considered a healing plant for thousands of years, the many benefits of the elderberry plant have only become well-known to consumers across the world in the last couple of decades. The flowers and berries of elderberry are considered to be high in fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, and some research indicates that using it can benefit your heart and immune system, while helping to manage stress and inflammation.
“The berry itself is small but very dense nutritionally, delivering goodness to consumers,” said Patton.
According to Patton, different species and varieties of elderberry grow from California to Vermont and Washington State to Florida. “Growing elderberry is great for the environment. It’s restorative, holds soil and can be a windbreak,” he said. “It’s a high-value crop, and has the potential to strengthen rural economies.”
The Midwest Elderberry Cooperative was awarded a USDA Value Added Producer Grant for planning in August of 2020. The $40,000 award is being used to help MEC scale up and expand their markets, particularly in developing the infrastructure and market for freeze-dried berries.
“In Europe, elderberries are a billion-dollar industry,” Patton said. “And while Native Americans and pioneers have used elderberries for years, it was never on a large scale.” Currently around 95 percent of elderberry ingredients are imported, and it’s clear that there is huge market potential.
Patton, who could have retired many years ago, wants to keep this effort going by hiring younger people and working on developing regional hubs in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Washington state. “Farmers looking for diversification are very interested in growing them,” he said, “and while it takes 2-4 years to get a field into production, the market potential will make for worthwhile profits. We need to increase our capacity to destem and pack the harvested berries in large volumes to appeal to larger and more traditional farmers.”
The cooperative currently has nine Minnesota members, including Patton, but has another 20 Minnesotans interested in joining as they scale up. The cooperative is working with the Forever Green initiative at the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri and a number of other state and local efforts to research and promote growth of this industry in the United states. Overall, the coop has 25 members from California to Virginia.
Patton’s overall goal for the cooperative is to keep this native specialty crop and its ingredient products “Farmer Owned, Farmer Grown” as much as possible. He wants “to see that growers, workers and their communities profit fairly, and to set the quality and ethical standards in all aspects of elderberry from soil health and environmental sustainability to benefiting public health - for all consumers of our fruit.”
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)