Native but Endangered

For a while, it was. Despite traveling on tankers emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change all along the way, acai berries represented the best available option. After all, less than 20% of Americans get their daily recommended dose of antioxidants, so even if the berries had to be imported – a process that requires heat and limits the nutritional integrity of the fruit – it seemed worth it.

The Amazonian Rainforest. The Mountains of Tibet. Exotic-sounding superfoods, like acai berries from Brazil and goji berries from China, are supposed to have come from equally exotic locations. After all, if the berries traveled thousands of miles, it must have been for a good reason!

Despite traveling on tankers emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change all along the way, acai berries represented the best available option – until America’s native aronia. 

After doing some digging – you may have heard, but farmers are pretty good at that – the answer soon became clear: Although the aronia berry was a native plant, it was actually an endangered plant species in the Midwest.

When we planted the first 207 cultivated aronia bushes in the United States, becoming the first aronia berry farm in the United States, our plan wasn’t to change the superfood landscape. It was simply to return to farming.

Unfortunately, for many living on family-sized acreages, the options available to returning and beginning farmers were limited. Then, one day in 1994 at a food conference in New Orleans, Vaughn stumbled across one of those “exotic juice” beverages. In addition to acai and goji, the drink featured a berry he had never heard of: aronia.

“The aronia berry is a native North American fruit, but we import it from Poland.”

The men at the booth, not unlike the one we manned during Expo West some twenty years later, were still staring at Vaughn while he made sense of the facts in front of him. If the aronia berry was a native fruit, why in the world were they importing it?

Sometimes, when you take the road less traveled, you’re better for it. 

But we had found our fruit. We have always been willing to take the road less traveled; you may have read our homestead stands at the fork of a dirt and gravel one [hyperlink to first blog]. Still, even we were nearly laughed off the farm when we started growing this previously “erroneous” berry. What happened next, though, proved Robert Frost’s old adage correct: sometimes, when you take the road less traveled, you’re better for it.

If you’re trying to imagine how that may have happened, consider the choice between elderberries, which grow on the sides of the road, and aronia berries, which require a labor-intensive propagation technique. If you were new to the area and knew nothing of antioxidants, anthyocyanins, or other healthful polyphenolic compounds, which would you choose?

Andrew Bennett