This group application was submitted by Christopher Patton, Dan Moe, Loren Nickelson, and Paul Otten on behalf of current and potential elderberry producers in MN. Collectively, the four producers also constituted the initial board of directors of the recently incorporated Minnesota Elderberry Cooperative (MEC). The MEC was formed to be the vehicle by which small farmers could work together to determine the feasibility of wide-scale production of elderberries in the state and region, for subsequent cooperative processing and marketing of value-added juices, wines and concentrates.
The four growers affiliated with this application were searching for new crops that strengthen existing sustainable farm operations by accessing new markets (i.e. health conscious consumers). Each has been engaged for several years in commercial small fruit production, though with a diversity of marketing strategies. Each wanted solutions that were sustainable commercially and environmentally.
The primary issue addressed was whether small sustainable/organic farmers can further diversify their businesses by profitably growing and processing elderberries in MN. The University of Missouri’s financial pro forma suggested that small to medium sized producers can add modest elderberry plantings (4-10 acres) at an establishment cost of $2500-$4500 per acre. Under market conditions in Missouri, experience-based projections suggested that growers could earn $500-6500/acre net return. Would the experiences of elderberry production in Missouri directly transfer to Minnesota?
However, with emerging niche markets, the issue is almost NEVER that of “production” but of “marketing”. Experiences in other places suggest that a mix of market opportunities may be accessible to small growers (sales of fruit to wineries, sales of juice or jellies at farmers markets, etc.), but no such research has been done to assess these opportunities for Minnesota producers. Further, would a growers cooperative contribute positively to elderberry growing, processing and marketing elderberries and elderflowers?
Project goals as identified in our grant application:
- Conduct a market study
- Conduct grower outreach and education
- Further business development
- Capitalization of a growers cooperative
- Over the course of the year Minnesota Elderberry Cooperative Steering Committee held several meetings in person and through email. In these meetings we worked with Cooperative Development Services Bob Olson and Kevin Edberg on the market and feasibility of production study, discussed grower education and outreach as well as membership structure and benefits.
- We completed the Feasibility Study delivered by Cooperative Development Services (CDS) in August of 2013 and presented at the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Conference on January 16, 2014.
- CDS completed the Business Plan in October of 2014, which was presented to the Steering Committee on September 26, 2014 and December 5, 2014. They will be discussed at the March 28, 2015 members meeting.
The planning and conduct of MEC’s activities and execution of this grant’s objectives were largely the work of Chris Patton and Paul Otten. Besides the individuals mentioned in the Process section above, others who contributed more than once include: Dave Birky of Ag Resource, Inc., Michelle Menken of Minnesota Crop Improvement Assoc., Dr. Annie Kirk (and others) of the University of Minnesota Entomology Dept., and Paul Hannemann of onFarm Storage, Inc.
- Based on the completed Feasibility Study and Business Plan, Chris Patton prepared and delivered (multiple times) a presentation on marketing elderberry in Missouri and Minnesota. Memberships were solicited and gained to begin capitalization. Additional grants were identified and efforts organized to apply for them in order to capitalize MEC.
- On April 13, 2013 and May 31, 2014, we conducted daylong growers workshops and field tours. Both Spring Workshops focused on evaluation of the elderberry opportunity for growers, planting options and installation, field management, pest control and the organic certification process.
- In 2013 we conducted an online Growers Survey prepared by CDS. (Link on: http://minnesota-elderberry.coop/cultivation/). In 2014 we conducted an email survey of participants, which indicated a significant number of growers would prefer to attend workshops during the workweek rather than the weekend due to their ongoing farm activities/marketing.
- June 10-14, 2013 we participated in the First International Symposium on Elderberry hosted by the University of Missouri at Columbia, which paralleled the annual workshops held in Missouri by Terry Durham of River Hills Elderberry Processors, in which Chris Patton participated and presented on behalf of MEC. He did so again on June 12-13, 2014.
- August 24, 2013 we hosted a Berry Day Workshop at Natura Farms from 8 am – 5 pm that included educational presentations, Q&A as well as in-field demonstrations and tour. We conducted an email survey of participants.
- We brought Patrick Byers from the University of Missouri Agricultural Extension service to speak at the MFVGA Conference January 16-17, 2014. He summarized his over 15 years of working on elderberry in Missouri and suggested areas for particular attention in studying elderberry commercial production for the more northern zones typifying Minnesota and Wisconsin.
- August 22-23, 2014 MEC hosted a Field & Processing Workshop for members and prospective grower members. Terry Durham and his crew trained us in how to harvest and process elderberries using his de-stemmer. Dan Halsey of Southwoods Designs presented on the use of elderberry in permaculture design on farms and for rural residences. Other presentations covered field management (& tour), the potential health benefits of elderberry, marketing options, organic certification and pest control. (Watch short video)
- A well researched, written Feasibility Study and Business Plan were produced for MEC that favorably assessed the potential profitability of elderberry cultivation, processing and marketing of ingredient products under present conditions.
- In 2013 over 95% of elderberry used in the USA was imported from 4-5 European nations that produced something over 100,000 tons a year.
- CDS estimated that less than 1000 tons are currently produced in the USA, most of which goes to wineries.
- Short-run opportunities include frozen berry sales to River Hills Harvest for bottled juice; sale of fresh and/or frozen berries to local wineries; on farm and local sale of de-stemmed frozen and possibly fresh berries and flowers to consumers as home production hobbyists.
- Significant long-run opportunities exist for processing elderflower and elderberry harvests as dried, powdered and IQF ingredients for the functional beverage, alcoholic beverage and natural colorant categories both domestically and for export.
- These combined opportunities indicate first tier support for 22,500 acres of commercially grown elderberry in the USA.
Impact of Results/Outcomes
Through the objective analysis provided by the experienced professionals of Cooperative Development Services, we systematically confirmed our intuitions that elderberry could be a profitable crop. Elderberry’s potential contribution to sustainable agriculture is enhanced by its viability as a commercial crop.
Not only can it provide an additional income stream to farmers, but encourages the use of its horticultural properties in managing land and water resources, providing support for pollinators and wildlife diversity. Local food, beverage and health supplement companies will benefit from locally sourced, higher quality elderberry ingredients to replace European imports. The public benefits from increased access to a traditionally used wild berry with a reputation of delivering a high level of health benefits.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Why North American Elderberry? Christopher J. Patton, MA, MBA
MEC Feasibility Study Reflections Narrated Presentation:
Assessing Market Opportunities and Commercial Applications
Christopher J. Patton, MA, MBA (about 35 minutes)
This project materially and intangibly contributed to the viable establishment of domestic elderberry as a new specialty small fruit crop in the Midwest.
A great deal of basic horticultural and applied agricultural research needs to be done to identify and describe cultivar variation in both nutrient make-up of Sambuscus nigra canadensis as well as tolerance of pests, disease and various types of soil and microclimates.