Developing successful marketing strategies for elderberry growers and value added processors: a model for specialty crop development in the U.S. Midwest.

Project Overview

LNC10-324
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $105,427.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Michael Gold
MU Center for Agroforestry

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Fruits: general small fruits

Practices

  • Crop Production: agroforestry, intercropping, irrigation, nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance, market study, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: hedgerows, hedges - woody
  • Pest Management: biological control, cultural control, mulching - plastic
  • Soil Management: organic matter

    Abstract:

    Market and consumer elderberry research results reveal show a nascent industry with mostly small scale participants poised for growth. Demand trends are favorable and prices are good across the value chain. Challenges include a limited domestic supply of fruit, few regionally adapted varieties suitable for commercial production, and high labor costs. The absence of existing mechanical harvesting equipment limits industry growth. Opportunities exist to increase the domestic elderberry industry across the value chain. Outreach publications and on-farm workshops and conferences support individual producers and the Missouri elderberry industry including an ongoing elderberry producer cooperative.

    Introduction:

    Background

    Both within the U.S. and globally, concerns about industrial agriculture practices, food quality and links to human health have fostered interest in new, alternative, local, and more sustainable agricultural practices. Organic and locally grown foods are perceived by consumers as healthier and safer for both people and the environment. The production and sale of all types of berries have benefited from increased consumer health consciousness.

    In 2002, Missouri had 508 farms involved in berry production, with a total of 774 acres under cultivation. Berries yield 2-5 tons per acre depending on the crop, with average on-farm price of $0.90 per pound. Missouri’s berry business contributes an estimated $6.9 million in revenue to Missouri’s agricultural producers [1]. Specialty berries, including elderberries, chokeberries, loganberries, and blackberries are gaining in popularity, especially as juice product. Specialty berry products can be found in sale venues ranging from health food stores to big grocery chains.  

    Elderberry is a perennial shrub native to North America with a variety of uses and benefits. Elderberries can be grown without use of pesticides in sustainable agroforestry systems to generate income while simultaneously protecting and conserving soil, water and other natural resources. They are perennial plants that grow well in upland and riparian forest buffers and in alley cropping configurations to help control erosion and nonpoint source pollution. Elderberries are beautiful landscape plants that attract butterflies and provide wildlife habitat.

    Elderberry has been recognized for treating a variety of ailments [2,3,4] which makes it a valuable raw material for the nutraceutical industry. The fruit can be used to make jams, jellies, syrups and wines on a small or commercial scale. Demand for elderberry fruit and flowers are increasing from winemakers, jelly processors and nutraceutical companies. At present, demand is being met via elderberry imports from Europe. Global prices for elderberry are relatively high, and demand is expected to continue to grow [5].

    In contrast to Europe, elderberry is not well known or widely utilized in the U.S. Historically, a limited amount of elderberry research has occurred in the North East region. Over the past 10 years the North Central region has taken a very active role in both elderberry production research and industry development. Active research has been conducted by University of Missouri (MU) and Missouri State University to identify native elderberry cultivars best suited for Midwest soils, as well as the best production techniques and management practices for cultivation of elderberries in agroforestry settings. Two new high yielding cultivars have recently been released. Plants take 3 to 4 years to reach full maturity, and will yield between 3 to 4 tons of berries per acre. Wholesale prices for fruit in Missouri range from $0.50 to $0.75 (wholesale) per pound. In addition to research producers in Midwest are already involved in the elderberry industry with potential to grow. A group of growers in Missouri started to produce elderberry and to organize themselves to sustain a value added enterprise and a winery in Kansas is the largest value added elderberry producer in the U.S.

    However, up-to-date information is lacking with regard to market size, growth trends, and competition, as well as on the economic benefits and costs of elderberry intercropping and value added processing. Gathering and organizing marketing and financial information will improve producer decision making for on-farm and associated enterprise opportunities and provide support to the newly developing industry. Results of this study will be published as extension “how to” guides, in refereed journals, and on the MU Center for Agroforestry website. Research outputs will be also disseminated through outreach programs (field days, workshops, conference presentation, guides and directories) to meet the needs of a growing group of elderberry producers and processors. Presentations to local, regional, and national conferences will assist existing and potential producers and value added processors and serve as a model for new specialty crop development and adoption in the U.S. Project activities will also increase consumer awareness about the nutritional properties, health benefits and value added products made from elderberry. Information gained will help grow the industry by promoting elderberry and elderberry benefits and demonstrate that elderberry is a viable Midwest specialty crop. Increased acreage planted to sustainable woody perennial crops will improve ecosystem health (water, soil, air quality) and diversify habitat.

    The presence of extensive production research in Missouri, partnerships with active research and extension specialists, a group of Missouri growers ready to start producing and marketing elderberries and the largest value-added elderberry processor in the U.S. will help connect all the necessary pieces to make sure that our research and outreach efforts will be targeted to the needs of our partners to the benefit of all landowners that wish to adopt sustainable farming practices and generate increased income in the region.

    Literature review.

    The elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a native fruit-bearing shrub common in western and central Europe, Scandinavia, and Great Britain. The species found in North America is Sambucus canadensis. Commercial elderberry production is concentrated in Europe in Denmark, Italy, Austria and Germany. Both the flower and the fruit are used in Europe to produce fermented drinks, as a source of food coloring and as dye. Elderberries are used in combination with other fruits for making wines and jams which are rich in vitamins A and C. Historians trace the tradition of the elderberry’s healing power back to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek known as the “father of medicine,” who described this plant as his “medicine chest” for the wide variety of ailments it seemed to cure [6]. Elderberry leaves are considered to be a purgative, an expectorant, and a diuretic. Elderberry leaf ointment is a traditional remedy for coughs, sinus congestion and reducing swelling of sore throats. The berries are used as a remedy for constipation, colic, diarrhea, colds and rheumatism. The flowers are used in treatment of allergies and arthritis. Tea from elderberry flowers is used against cold and high fever. Research indicates that elderberry extract is useful for cold, cough and flu, as well as for heart protection and stress reduction [7]. Elderberry is also used in the cosmetic industry for facial toners and cleansers [8]. The colorant from the fruit is used in wines, as a dye, and as a natural food colorant. New research from Israel and Finland suggests that elderberry is a powerful antioxidant, inhibits influenza virus and the herpes simplex virus [6].

    Currently, Europe has an established elderberry industry. Austrian elderberry production is estimated at 8,000 tons of cultivated elderberry per year and this production volume is increasing due to strong market demand. One thousand Austrian growers are organized in a cooperative with rigid schedules for harvesting, trucking and cooling berries. The co-op handles in full season between 600 and 1,600 tons per day [7]. In Canada, demand for elderberry is expected to increase due to a growing demand for nutraceuticals, functional foods and other products derived from elderberry. Marketing efforts should be focused on educating consumers about the benefits of elderberry consumption [9].

    The literature about elderberry production and marketing in the U.S. is very scarce. An Elderberry Improvement Project was initiated in Missouri in 1997. The project has three components: 1) collection of native elderberry germplasm and study of phenology and plant growth, harvest date, yield, panicle size, berry size, fruit quality, and disease and insect problems, 2) replicated evaluation trials of superior native germplasm to identify elderberry cultivars with sufficient merit for release and commercial planting and 3) cultural studies (i.e., pruning, and leaf foliar nutritive content) [10]. Additional studies have focused on pruning techniques, elderberry antioxidants and DNA fingerprinting of different cultivars.

    On the marketing side, Dr. Weeder-Einspahr conducted in 2001 a Midwest regional market assessment for small fruits, including elderberries. Using guided telephone interviews, 66 jam and jelly manufacturers and 57 wineries were contacted in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. Information collected included types and form of fruit used, current fruit source, quality criteria, annual quantities sources and prices paid. The study found that companies in the region used about 90,000 pounds/year of fresh or frozen elderberries in products ranging from jams, jellies, syrups and wines. Prices paid averaged $0.75 per pound of fruit. Some value-added producers sourced their product (juice concentrate) from Europe and the Pacific Northwest region. The study found that many of the jam and jelly companies in the Midwestern U.S. are small, often pick their own fruit from wild sources and process it themselves. However, several larger jam and jelly manufacturers do purchase large amounts of fresh fruit from growers, often under a verbal contract. Most wineries purchase concentrate from national suppliers, but also purchase fresh fruit when available. Smaller growers of fresh fruits for jam, jelly and wine markets have the best potential for success if they partner with these companies to produce fruit under contract. However, given the overall volumes of fruit used by this industry in the Midwest, commercial production would be limited to a relatively small number of growers. In contrast, juice processors require large quantities and greater production investments by the grower. The possibility of addressing these markets in combination with others (e.g., nutraceuticals, organic colorings, etc.), and expansion of sales from small to medium processors could provide a market of sufficient size for a number of producers [11].

    According to an article published in New York Berry News [12], most of the elderberries grown in the Midwest are harvested for processing markets. Several wineries produce elderberry wines from the fruit, while the flowers and panicles are used to flavor wines. Elderberry juice or fruit are used for jam and jelly. Elderberry juice and concentrates are marketed as nutraceuticals. The pigments in elderberry juice are suitable for colorant use.

    The proposed project will build upon previously research funded by SARE. In 2002, SARE funded a R&E project (LNE 02-162) that studied nutritional benefits, cultural and processing practices and a feasibility/marketing study of ribes, aronia and elderberries in the NE region. The proposed project, focusing exclusively on elderberry, will have immediate application in the newly emerging center of elderberry development, the NC region.

    A completed project funded in 2005 (LNC 05-256), Organic Production and Marketing of Forest Medicinals: Building and Supporting a Learning Community among Growers used a similar approach to inform growers. The project proved to be successful in assisting a growers association to develop a learning network among growers, close the gap between growers and research activities and support the association entering the marketplace.

    Project objectives:

    This project takes an integrated approach to specialty crop development combining marketing and financial research (supported by ongoing long-term production research) with outreach efforts. Outcomes will be enhanced by formation of clusters of elderberry growers and value-added producers and their integration into regional collaborative networks. This project will provide information essential to the growth and development of a regional elderberry industry. The main outcomes and outcome indicators of the project include: * Increased producer/value-added processor adoption of elderberry as a profitable and sustainable specialty crop * 12 new farms will begin elderberry production * 8 wineries will add or increase elderberry wine production * 10 value added producers will initiate or increase use of elderberry in their product mix * In-depth information created to support producer decision making process for on-farm and associated value added enterprise opportunities * Increased knowledge about the elderberry market, future trends and growth potential * Integrated elderberry Financial Decision Support Model to assist multiple level decision makers from the family farmer to the agricultural lender * Increased knowledge about consumer preferences and target markets * 100 individuals trained in elderberry marketing via workshops * 100 individuals trained in elderberry winemaking principles via workshops * 200 individuals trained in elderberry production via field days * Expanded elderberry value added production * Generate options for higher rates of return for producers by adding value through product processing * Increased coordination among industry players * Development of a learning network among growers * Integration of growers and producers into regional cuisine networks in Missouri and the Midwest for greater visibility, joint marketing, and agri-tourism opportunities * Work towards obtaining geographical indication recognition for Midwest elderberries * Increased demand for elderberry products (10% increase in regional demand) * Increased consumer awareness about elderberry (5,000 to 7,500 individuals directly exposed to elderberry value-added products via the Missouri Chestnut Roast and all the events organized at the University of Missouri Research Centers, Eridu Farms, and Wyldewood Cellars) * Increase consumption of elderberry products with associated nutrition and health benefits

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.