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A berry good harvest

Northeast Iowa farm grows aronia berries for emerging markets
The aronia berry, or chokeberry, has grown in Iowa since before the first settlers arrived. But not until recently was it identified as a  powerful antioxidant and as a popular crop to grow in Iowa.

Dean Mangrich and Donna Costello of Fairbank in northeastern Iowa began growing aronia berries on 10 acres in 2011 after Mangrich learned of the berry from an agriculture radio show. He and Costello attended a conference in Des Moines shortly afterwards to learn more about it, then decided they would take the plunge and plant the berry, which grows plants that can stand as big as lilacs bushes.

The couple traveled to Poland where aronia berries are a huge crop — that country is known as the aronia capital of the world — and learned about the production methods that are successful there.

They learned about the equipment needed and ended up becoming an American dealer for machinery hand-built overseas there.

Also while in Poland, the couple bought harvest machinery that helps speed up the hand-picking process.

“We were deeply engaged in this. We put a website together, and what started out as a hobby turned into a full-fledged business. By the end of our first year, we had 13,000 plants in the ground of our own. Now, we raise the berries to sell through a marketing co-op. We also sell the plants, and we also do custom planting and harvesting of aronia berries for others,” Mangrich said.

The first few years of raising aronia berries can be a bit intense. They must be planted in a precise grid of rows a certain distance from each other. They need a strong weed barrier, and a drip line for watering is beneficial.

The couple has custom planted approximately 400,000 aronia berry plants for upwards of 30 people from Nebraska east to Wisconsin and all places in between. They also have planted in Missouri and Minnesota.

“The plant thrives in the Heart­land, because it has to have a set amount of cold degree days. They are native to the Midwest, also known as chokeberries,” Mangrich said.

People will stop by their farm, named "The 'WHAT' Berry Farm?...Aronia Berry," to pick up bags of aronia berries that can be frozen for up to six months or refrigerated for one month. The remaining 80 percent of their berries are marketed through the North American Aronia Cooperative based out of Omaha.

“We make juice, muffins, cakes, summer sausage, you name it, with these berries,” Costello said.

Mangrich said the industry is probably three to five years away from the berries becoming a household name. Still, they put together a cookbook for a field day they hosted where they anticipated 25 people attending. They ended up with 300 people interested in learning more.

Once established, aronia berry plants are quite hearty. It takes a few years before they begin producing fruit. At first, they will put out 1.5 pounds per plant. In the second harvest year, they’ll produce an average of five pounds. After the fifth year of harvest, the plant can produce 20 pounds of berries.

Harvesting can be a hassle, though, as it takes 720 man-hours to hand harvest one acre and there’s 3.5- to five-week optimal window for harvest.

“I work a full-time job, we custom feed 7,500 head of hogs, then we have the aronia berries we raise,” Mangrich said. “But this is such an amazing product to grow.”

Danley-Greiner is a freelance writer from Runnells.


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