Thursday, June 7, 2012 | 11:03 a.m. CDT;
updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 7, 2012
COLUMBIA — The 37 acres of elderberries growing northeast of Hartsburg are no accident. Neither are the 11 acres growing about 10 miles north of Mexico, Mo.
And don’t dismiss the small field growing at MU’s Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon, southwest of Springfield.
If you go
What: Third annual Elderberry Festival, including elderberry-themed food and drink for sale, performances by more than two dozen bands on two stages, activities for children and information on growing elderberries.
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Eridu Farms, Hartsburg
Admission: Four-day pass, $30; three-day pass, $25; Thursday-only pass, $5; Friday-only pass, $15; Saturday-only pass, $20. The cost includes being able to camp at the festival.
More information: elderberryfestival.com
Directions: Go south on Highway 63 past the Ashland exit to the Hartsburg exit (Route A). Turn right and go all the way to Hartsburg. Turn right at the Hitchin’ Post and stay to the right along the railroad tracks past the winery and the two churches to Hart Creek Road. It is a gravel road. Go two miles to Jemerson Creek Road. Keep going 100 yards more, and the festival entrance is on the left.
These three fields, and the people who cultivate them, are part of a burgeoning industry making elderberries a specialty crop in Missouri.
Durham's confidence in the berries' possibilities has spread to people such as Gary Littrell, who began growing them five years ago with his brother, Terry Littrell, on their farm near Mexico.
A support team can be found in researchers such as Andy Thomas and Patrick Byers at the Southwest Research Center. Thomas has studied the cultivation of elderberries for 15 years and is a major player in organizing MU's elderberry symposium, scheduled for 2013.
"We are building a new commercial crop," Durham said. "It's Missouri's super-fruit. We owned it."
Tiny berry with big potential
The elder bush has long been found in ditches and along streams in Europe and eastern and midwestern North America. It blooms in large bunches of small, white flowers, which become a dark purple, almost black, berry about a third the size of a blueberry.
The berries don't have much commercial success in their raw form. More commonly, the berries are used to make sweet pies, jellies, wines and juices. They can also be used medicinally, made into pills, syrups and lozenges.
Elderberries are part of the area’s cultural memory, Durham said. People can recall a childhood that included gathering wild elderberries for homemade pies and jellies, Durham said.
Elderberries also have a history in health care. Durham referenced the Greek physician Hippocrates, who called the elder plant his medicine chest.
The berry is reputed to be useful in treating a long list of ailments, including colds, rheumatism, sore throats and sinus congestion, Durham said. It’s high in vitamins A and C and is a good source of calcium and iron, published studies have shown.
Durham and Littrell are willing to back up thousands of years’ worth of history with their own experiences.
"I drink the berry juice daily, and you really see the benefits," Littrell said. "I just don't get sick. That's all there is to it."
However, scientific evidence for these claims would be required, Durham said.
That’s why researchers are working to discover the science behind the berry’s healthfulness.
MU’s Center for Botanical Interaction Studies in Columbia is researching elderberries grown in Thomas' field at the Southwest Research Center. The focus is on the berry's potential in combating cancer, stroke and infectious diseases such as E. coli, Thomas said.
The elderberry’s potential health benefits are part of the reason Durham is confident in the demand for elderberry products and in getting involved in the industry.
Filling a niche
Traditionally, 95 percent of the U.S. elderberry market has been imported from Europe. For people like Durham and Littrell, it looked like an empty niche that could be filled by American farmers.
"That intrigued me," Littrell said. "Being a farmer, I always wanted to have something that was in demand."
The idea of mass-producing elderberries came to Missouri thanks to John Brewer of Wichita, Kan., Thomas said. He began selling high-quality elderberry wine about 15 years ago, but he had to pick his berries from bushes growing along the railroad because he had no commercial growers nearby, Thomas said.
Thomas and Byers decided to look into the idea of a domestic elderberry for the Midwest.
"Over the years, this thing kind of evolved, and we started getting some grants," Thomas said. Durham got involved in 2005, pushing things even further along.
"He saw the writing on the wall and jumped all over it," Thomas said. "He's a very shrewd businessman and a very good farmer." Durham, Thomas and other growers and researchers worked to turn wild elder plants into something farmers could use.
North America already had domesticated plants from New York and Nova Scotia, but they didn’t do as well in Missouri’s climate.
"We knew we had really good native elderberries that grew all over here," Durham said. "They really hadn't been explored."
Thomas and Byers took about 68 selections of elder bushes and whittled them down to two varieties: the Bob Gordon and the Wyldewood. Research is still being done, but these varieties seem ideal for a large operation, according to the research.
It’s common to have a bush or two growing in someone’s backyard, but it’s a different story when 37 acres of elderberry rows have to be cultivated and harvested, as is the case on Eridu Farms.
There’s been plenty of experimentation, Durham said.
"What Terry is doing is still fairly risky because we don't have all the answers," Thomas said. "He's kind of out there on the fringe."
Thomas fulfills his job to help Missouri farmers by researching basic information such as how to properly prune elder bushes, deal with pests and ensure soil fertility.
A growing idea
These days, Durham is in the fields less and in the public sphere more. He hosts workshops on growing elderberries and has persuaded more than one farmer to give them a try.
"I've known Terry Durham for quite a few years and when he got involved, he started talking to me about it, and I got interested," Littrell said. "We bought our first elder plants from him."
Getting elderberries established is a long process. Currently, Littrell has one acre of elderberries in full production and uses the berries to make wine.
He anticipates high returns in the next few years and hopes to sell his wine in stores.
"I really am enjoying it," Littrell said. "It's something different than anything I've done before."
River Hills Harvest Elderberry Producers, as a cooperative operation, ensures that involved growers have a buyer for their product.
It’s often difficult for elderberry farmers to process their berries on a large scale. It gets especially thorny when one considers that the elder stems, leaves and twigs can be toxic if ingested.
Farmers can avoid the liabilities by selling their berries to Durham, who turns them into juice, cordial and jelly. The farmers get one third of the revenue.
So far, the cooperative operation has 125 acres.
"There's no commercial sources, so the farmers actually have some control," Durham said. "If we stay organized and we market our stuff together, then we can maintain that price.”
Durham envisions pods of three or four elderberry growers who share a de-stemmer, which can help double the crop’s value by removing the berries completely from the stems. He’s been working to make that happen by meeting with farmers in Missouri and states such as Texas, Arkansas, Iowa and Wisconsin and teaching them the basics of growing and processing elderberries.
"We plan by 2014 to have a multi-state approach," Durham said.
He also hopes to move into producing elderberry ice cream, yogurt and soft drinks.
Thanks to public attention and endorsements from such public figures as Dr. Oz, the demand for elderberries is growing. Durham has already sold all that he can produce next year.
This weekend, Durham will host the third Elderberry Festival on his farm. Guests can enjoy music, food and drink and learn more about how to grow elderberries.
A 12-page guide, "Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri," will debut at the festival.
As of Sunday, Durham said, more than 500 tickets to the event had been sold.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.