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Elderberry & Environment

Forever Green Initiative

With about 100 Minnesota acres of native elderberry in early commercial stage production and planning, Midwest Elderberry Cooperative is a participant in the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. “The Forever Green Initiative is a University of Minnesota and USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) program to develop new crops and high-efficiency cropping systems.” Its research partners include university and government agency partners in several midwestern states: Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, for example. 

From their Vision page:

Most of our current crops are ‘summer-annuals’ that are grown during the summer. By selectively adding winter-annual and perennial crops to our agricultural landscapes to create new crop production systems, we can enhance the prosperity of Minnesota agriculture, support rural communities, and provide major benefits to all Minnesotans. A strong base of evidence indicates that these new production systems will enhance yields of our summer-annual crops, enable production of new commodities, enhance our soils and wildlife, and improve our water resources. All of these benefits are possible because perennial and winter-annual crops are active during a large portion of each year, including many periods in fall, winter and spring when summer crops are absent.

These new production systems, combining summer-annual, winter-annual and perennial crops, use our precious resources of land, water and nutrients more efficiently than our current systems.  For this reason, we call these systems high-efficiency agriculture. These high-efficiency systems are arguably the most promising vehicle by which we can rapidly improve the productivity of Minnesota agriculture, and its ability to withstand climate variability such as the drought of 2012. To realize the great potential of these systems, two kinds of research and development are critically needed: genetic improvement of plant materials, and development of new economic opportunities based on these systems. The University of Minnesota has significant strengths and ongoing efforts in both areas, providing the foundation for this initiative.

Visualization of their goal: Picture the Mississippi River System as being a many fingered hand of water flows extending north from the Gulf of Mexico, then imagine putting a thick hairy green glove of perennial crops and marshy buffers. This glove provides an environmental transition zone for the movement of life from soil life to birds flying above. Like the human body’s interstitium, it can be unhealthy or healthy in what it delivers to the body or landmass - contaminated with sickening pollutants or regenerative, providing the substances of life required by humans, animals, plants and microbes. Finally, extend the green glove by planting year-round cover crops between the rows of the primary cash crops, and then provide perennial alternatives for small grains that do not require annual plowing.  

Elder: the Little Berry that Could

Minnesota, for example, has almost 16 million acres of corn and soybeans. University researchers estimate that a 100,000 acres of farmland needs to be repurposed as buffer zones along waterways with both biomass and berry options. In 2017 Minnesota had little under 800 acres of commercially grown berry crops. Minnesota consumer demand could support ten times that number of acres, which would still remain minuscule compared to corn and soybeans, yet provide huge environmental and nutritional benefits.

Enter the native Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis. Hardy and already adapted to North America east of the Rockies, elder flowers and berries provide abundant environmental benefits with their extensive root systems, rapid growth, fragrant flowers and nutrient dense berries. University of Missouri researchers counted 67 native pollinators on elder - both at its stem nectaries and on its flowers. The economic potential for US grown elder is huge. Best estimates cite over 30,000 acres of elder cultivated in Europe and many more are harvested out of the wild. 

Missouri leads the USA in elderberry production with over 350 acres grown commercially. It is their number one berry crop economically. How did it get that way? Through collaboration between University of Missouri researchers and extension beginning about the year 2000 and the early elderberry growers, especially Terry Durham of Eridu Farms. Propagation began in 2004, and the first commercial pots of elder were planted in 2005. 

Terry knew that farmers would not grow what they could not sell, so he founded the River Hills Harvest brand of elder berry (and now flower) products in 2006. His commercial enterprise supported by university research motivated farmers to grow elderberry and inspired others to develop their own commercial enterprises using elder berries and flowers. 

The success of River Hills Harvest supports hundreds of acres of native (Sambucus canadensis), better tasting, elderberry. To support thousands of acres, Midwest Elderberry Cooperative is developing ingredient products that provide elder berry and flower flavor alternatives to many kinds of food, beverage and herbal products. The demand is there, and not only as a substitute for the imported 95% of elderberry sold in America today. Consumers and companies want locally grown, truly nutrient dense berries and flowers from our native perennial with positively so much good environmental and human health potential. MEC’s Project  22-50 is our plan to get there.

© Midwest Elderberry Cooperative 2018