Pokey Creek Farm has produced organic vegetable and fruits for over thirty years in the mountains of northern Idaho. Hoop houses abound on the terraced slopes and, despite rugged terrain and harsh climates, an abundance of produce is harvested for market to farmers markets, restaurants and co-ops. Our interest in trying to cultivate and produce value-added elderberry products was a natural next step from harvesting native berries and making our own jelly. Though the project had several setbacks due to weather and poor seedling stock, two years later we now have a good start to our elderberry crop.
Variation in growth rate was observed due to inconsistencies in soil from the amount of woody debris left after logging and also between the varieties planted. Earlier estimates on when elderberries will mature and the yields have been revised based on new research reports and our observations.
An organized farm tour through University of Idaho Extension brought 18 farmers and students to the farm in July 2013. All attendees learned about sustainable production practices, growing in high elevation with season extension and the elderberry research project.
Elderberry jelly has been tested and marketed successfully.
Additional products are being researched for feasibility for value-added production and marketing potential.
Pokey Creek Farm has produced organic produce for over thirty years and has been an exemplary model of how vegetable and fruit producers can utilize high elevation mountain terrain once perceived unusable. The farm, comprised of 24 acres of forested land, includes two acres on a southern slope. Green houses and hoop houses abound on the terraced slopes and produce an abundance of vegetables and fruits for direct marketing in local farmers markets, restaurants, grocery stores and co-ops.
We have always wanted to diversify our operation and add a value-added product. In 2009, unemployment in our county was 19.5%, timber companies had slowed production and Greg’s work as a forester was limited. The opportunity and timing were right to explore diversification and a potential value-added crop. We contacted Danny L. Barney, Professor of Horticulture with University of Idaho Extension, to discuss his research with the elderberry plant. He suggested potential cultivars and planting strategies he had developed through his work. We decided that diversification into elderberries would be an excellent choice for our operation.
Elderberries grow wild in the mountains of north Idaho and we have harvested these berries to produce jelly and wine. Because of the potential health benefits of elderberries, we decided it would make an excellent plant to try and cultivate on our farm. Blueberries and huckleberries have been a mainstay in the local economy, but no one had explored the potential of the elderberry.
Successful marketing of various elderberry products could generate necessary revenue local farms.
Educational tours and workshops would showcase the elderberry production and demonstrate how people in this region can generate income off the land.
- *Successfully cultivate elderberries for a profitable and sustainable harvest
*Open up our operation for tours and workshops to educate interested parties
*Develop value-added elderberry products
Following additional discussions with technical advisor, Dr. Barney, we confirmed our original selection of two elderberry varieties to plant: Sambucus caerulea (native) and Sambucus nigra.
Site preparation was accomplished in 2010 for over one acre of land with tree removal, clearing of existing brush and soil preparation. Extra area (beyond what was needed for first planting) was cleared with intention for expansion. The area was leveled but not tilled smooth. There are two distinct areas within the one acre tract: one section is full sun and dry, and the other is shady and moister. The one acre area was fenced with 8 foot tall fencing for keeping deer and elk out of plantings.
The elderberries were started from seed by a local native plant nursery. The planting, originally planned for spring 2011, was delayed for a year because seedlings did not get big and strong enough. Additionally, it was an unnaturally late spring and the site still had snow until late June.
The 600 elderberry seedlings were planted in April 2012 with 8×8 foot spacing. Soil amendments were pelleted chicken manure (4-2-2), peat moss and lime. A three-foot circle was cultivated for each plant and mulched with hay. Plantings were hand-watered that first year, which was very labor intensive. We decided drip irrigation was too costly, and the elderberries should survive on normal precipitation after the initial year without additional irrigation.
The planned farm tour in August 2012, promoted by Latah County Extension Educator, was canceled due to limited registration numbers.
The tour was rescheduled for July 2013. It was attended by 18 area farmers and students from the UI student-run organic farm. Attendees toured terraced vegetable plots, hoop houses and the second year elderberry plantings. We discussed challenges and success related to elderberry production. We discussed plans for future development of the plantings and our value-added products. We distributed color brochures for our farm that describe our sustainable ‘mountain farming’ practices and our new elderberry project.
We hosted a University of Idaho student intern at the farm and hope to increase our mentoring of students learning to farm.
Equipment was purchased for harvesting the elderberries and other crops (with non-SARE funds). We originally planned on purchasing an electric wheelbarrow but decided to put in additional funds of our own to purchase a more versatile and adaptable ATV with dump bed that will handle the rough, sloped ground.
A used cold storage unit was found locally and purchased at a good price. A shed was built to cover the cooler unit. A Coolbot refrigeration unit was purchased for cold storage of berries upon harvest. Research has indicated the best way to harvest elderberries is to harvest the whole berry cluster and chill them immediately. Then the berries will easily fall off the bunch when shaken.
We continue to research the marketing potential of the crop and value-added products. A recipe has been perfected for elderberry jelly from wild harvested berries. The jelly has been marketed at the Moscow (Idaho) Farmers’ Market with great success. Connections have been made with herb companies interested in dry elderberries and flowers for use in tinctures. We still plan to connect with local university food science departments to explore opportunities for juice, sodas and/or juice concentrates.
By the end of the first summer it was obvious that about 1/3 of seedlings did not survive the transplanting. Dead plants have been removed, and we did take cuttings and propagate new plantings to fill in where others did not make it. The growth of remaining seedlings was sporadic; some survived but grew very little, and others grew by as much as 1.5 feet in the first year. The black elderberry plants seem to grow more slowly. By the second summer some of the blue elderberries were as tall as four to sixfeet, while the black elderberries were two to three feet and some still did not have much growth. Variation in growth also occurred where woody debris from logging the area was left in thicker patches. Some of the largest (six feet) plants were on those sites.
Cover crops of oats and winter pea will be planted between rows to keep the ground covered at all times and will be worked in as green manures. Keeping the ground covered is essential to prevent weeds. By using already established practices of cover cropping, mulching, utilizing manure and other soil amendments, we are building the soil. We also plan to inter-plant our organic garlic between rows of the slow growing black elderberry plants to provide weed control and produce a cash crop until the elderberries fill in and are productive.
Research has continued on marketing potential of the crop. In addition to the jelly that has already demonstrated good marketing potential; a local group has approached us about interest in doing an elderberry tea as a locally marketing product. Potential still exists with dry berries and flowers for herbal tinctures and marketing berries to a local winery in a nearby town. We are researching the potential for a elderberry soda or juice concentrate.
Educational & Outreach Activities
- *We produced a tri-fold bulletin on our project for handout at our farm tours and our Farmer Market booths
*A report of the field day/farm tour will be included in the winter 2013 issue of Rural Roots newsletter.
*Educational event on the farm involving 18 participants including farmers and students. Farmers attending the tour reported increased understanding of production in high elevation mountain climates. Use of hoop houses and green houses were explored. Organic garlic production was discussed, as well as the interplanting of garlic in between rows of elderberries.
We have greatly increased our skills in elderberry production and experience in producing and marketing a value-added product. Value-added jelly products have been tested and small quantities are being marketed with initial success.
Eighteen farmers and UI students who attended the 2013 farm tour reported increased knowledge about the trials and opportunities of elderberry production and developing a value-added product.
The original estimations of growth rate and yield potential from Dr. Barney’s controlled research on flat experimental plots have been revised considering mountain climate and terrain. The original estimation of bearing plants in three years from planting was optimistic for our site. Due to our short growing season we estimate it may be four to five years before full production potential.
Our proposal indicated a yield potential of full grown plants at 40-60 lbs. berries per plant. Further research has indicated that yields of commercial elderberries in other states range from 4-15 lbs/plant and two to six tons per acre. Many research studies are based on sites with longer growing seasons and optimal conditions. However, we remain optimistic for the potential of a viable productive crop.
- *Research effectiveness of propagation from cuttings and transplanting success
*See how well the cover crops and garlic do when intercropping between rows of elderberrie
*Start testing additional value-added products