BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
WEST POINT – Tucked back in the fertile farmland of rural Lee County is about 40 acres of land owned by Ken and Judy Sanders.
The two dabble in chestnuts and hazelnuts and battle critters and deer for the nuts on their farm just southwest of West Point. They live in St. Paul but work this farm that’s been in Ken’s family since his father purchased it in the late 60s. Now the acreage is home to KJM Berries and Nut Farm.
This couple, well into retirement, spends their mornings, sometimes seven days a week, working the land, but not just for nuts. They sell a few here and there to specific buyers in central Iowa, but the real cash crop is Aronia berries. In 2011, the two heard that the market for the violet-black berries, also known as chokeberries, was going to become a high demand market and planted rows on their property.
Ken said he was selling chestnuts to a customer in the Missouri valley and during the sale he brought up the rise in popularity of the aronia berry and the two planted some as a hobby the next year.
Judy said the berries are native to the United States, but Russia and Poland started growing them wholesale and importing them to the United States.
“They were sending Aronia berry juice to the U.S. and a guy in northwest Iowa said we should be growing them in this country.”
in 2011, Kenny and Judy planted some as a hobby and saw how well the fruit produced and heard of the growing market.
In 2012 we planted about 4,000 bushes and about 2,600 of those died due to a really hot June. We didn’t have irrigation then. In 2015 we replaced those and now we have irrigation so we don’t have to worry about dry conditions as much.
Usually in the middle of August is harvest time. Ken said the berries used to be picked by hand.
“One year we got about 3,000 lbs. by hand,” Ken said. “The next year we rented a harvester and picked them that way. Now we have our own machine and we rent that out to other planters.”
Judy said the season they picked by hand took them about six weeks picking for about eight hours a day.
Kenny and his father and brother used to do harvesting for area farmers and he spent time working full time with JJ Nichting in St. Paul.
“Yeah, we used to get up at 4:30 or 5 and he’d go to work and go full time with JJ Nichting and then he would harvest, get home at about midnight, fall into
bed and then do it all over again the next morning,” Judy said. Judy is a retired registered nurse who also grew up on a farm.
“We started this as a hobby,” Kenny said. “and then we turned it into a business.”
This year the couple, along with their son Mark, who has 40 acres himself adjacent to his parents land, pulled about 30,000 pounds of berries off the bushes. The berries get pulled, sorted into totes and then cooled, before refrigerated trucks come and take them to where they will be sold.
The berries grow on clusters on bushes that grow up to about 8-feet tall. The clusters have 12-15 berries per clusters. The berry has a tart juice off the bush, the tartness can be reduced by freezing. The juice is also dry and resembles a dry fruit wine due to tannins in the berries. They’re becoming more widely sold for their polyphenol characteristics. Polyphenols are micronutrients packed with health benefits.
The berries are sold at area farmers’ markets and to Hy-Vee. They are harvested from a picker that’s pulled behind a tractor and a wing on the side of the picker pulls the bush stems in with the help of someone walking along guiding the bush into the wing on the picker. The unit then separates the berries from twigs and leaves and drops them in a tote. The leaves and twigs are blown out a chute on the side of the picker.
“Farmers are planting 100s of acres of bushes. They’re planting that many bushes because they see what the market’s going to be like in 2 to 3 years,” Judy said.
“Athletes are using them now as a recovery after workouts.”
Kenny said he puts Aronia in Gatorade and juice. He’s also created an award-winning wine and brandy with some of the berries they keep on the farm.
Judy said the berries are being used to fend off cancer and diabetes and macular degeneration.
Iowa State has an article on how Aronia can be a part of a regimen to prevent breast cancer from recurring. And although Food and Drug Administration hasn’t signed off on any of the health benefits, nutritionists and athletic advisors are recommending the berries for its antioxidant properties.
Since the 2012 plantings, Ken had an irrigation drip line installed along each row to prevent drought conditions from ruining crops.
“We wouldn’t have had any berries last year if we didn’t have the irrigation because of the drought conditions,” Judy said.
There is also black plastic running along the bases of the plants to help keep weeds down. Judy said there’s a machine that puts the plastic down, but the first year they put it on manually.
“We had to go down each row on our hands and knees. We had knee pads because my kids played volleyball, but after that we had a machine do it.”
On the shorter bushes the automated picker doesn’t get close enough to the ground to get all the berries but the taller bushes are picked clean.
Production crews from Merschman Seeds came out and did a video of the farm using a drone that can be located here: https://youtu.be/bUgMwq3yGX8 .
With the harvest for 2018 complete, the Sanders have a portion of the harvest in a freezer on the farm and those interested in getting their hands on the fruit for winter baking, juicing, smoothies, or just to snack on, can reach out Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the farm at 319-850-0862.