News from our Elderberry Farm

Posted on Posted in Blog, Farming Adventures

News from our Elderberry Farm: The Devil Among Us

Annie's Elderberry Patch


It’s happened.

We experienced our first devastating crop loss. Knowing the trials that come with small scale, organic farming it isn’t all that surprising, really. But, even when you’ve mentally prepared for potential disaster, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game when it actually hits.

Perhaps “disaster” is an overstatement; “setback” might be more accurate. For what is a failure if not a learning experience, right?

Chickens in the elderberries
Sick ’em, ladies!

Our 170 acre farm in Hartsburg, MO is nestled just short of a mile above the floodplains of the Missouri River. Boarded on one side by the Hart Creek Conservation Area, the land sits just up the creek from the large conventional farms that occupy the Missouri River bottoms. This year, we noticed a larger than normal number of Japanese beetles on the elderberry bushes, but didn’t think much of it. Only a few short months later, what was previously a heightened number of beetles became an all-out Japanese beetle apocalypse! There were hundreds of thousands of them, everywhere, covering the fields, the orchards, swarming the skies, and blanketing the elderberry bushes.

The beetles cause extensive damage to foliage when congregating in throngs in the summer months, mating and feeding on plants. Moreover, these insects are extremely difficult to control because they are an imported pest, and have few natural enemies and predators to keep their numbers in check.

Manual removal of the beetles is the most reliable method of de-infesting plants. But, because the beetles lay their eggs in the soil, it’s important that the pests be removed from the property entirely. In the early morning, the beetles are lethargic, and dew on their wings impairs their ability to fly. Knowing this, each morning we pulled on our walking boots, raked the infested foliage with some scavenged branches, and had our chickens feast on the falling pests. Homegrown solutions: 1; pests: 0.

The berries started disappearing…

Then, to our dismay, berries began dropping to the ground– some fully ripened, others not yet ripe– by the thousands. Upon closer inspection, we discovered they were overrun with Asian fruit flies, also known as the dreaded Spotted Wing Drosophila. While other common fruit flies infest overripe or rotten fruit, this relatively new species is menacing because of its ability to infest healthy fruit. A new species to the United States, the Asian fruit fly was first identified in the US in 2008. Females of this species have serrated ovipositors (an organ used for laying eggs) that cut into healthy fruit and insert eggs. Once eggs are laid, there is no treatment as the larvae eat the fruit flesh from the inside out, causing berries to rot and drop. This explains the perplexing fruit deterioration we witnessed despite the plants themselves exhibiting strong health. Fortunately, the pests only affect the fruit that season; the plants themselves are not affected. That said, because we lost most of our berries this year, we are in the market for de-stemmed elderberries to keep our yummy goods stocked in your pantries!

Spotted Wing Drosophila- a relatively recent pest in the United States.

Both the Japanese beetle and Asian fruit fly invasions were never-before experienced phenomenons for us. Our guess is that both were fleeing the pesticide sprays– a toxic pest control method– used by the conventional farms, and moving up river in droves seeking refuge. But, what do we know?

We aren’t the only ones suffering from this year’s fruit fly invasion. Two weeks ago, Florida’s agriculture commissioner declared a state of emergency to deal with an outbreak of fruit flies of a similar species. The outbreak– the largest on record– threatens 95% of Florida’s crops, and has prompted an 85-square-mile quarantine in the Redland, home to Florida’s tropical fruit groves and
much of the nation’s winter crops. The outbreak will force many Florida farmers into bankruptcy as they simply don’t have the cash flow to sustain this kind of loss. For us at Norm’s Farms, we’re learning how to manage a sustainable farm in light of threats like these. And from 1,000 miles away? It’s challenging, to say the least.

This is all to confide in you that we experienced our first failed crop. We were crestfallen, and dispirited. We phoned other organic farmers and many of them had similar experiences this year. But, as we’ve said before, when you are committed to growing food with restorative agricultural methods you need to be prepared to give some of your crop up to mother nature. In fact, we discussed this very thing with Conscious Company Magazine in their recently published Norm’s Farms business review, which explores some of our sustainable agricultural and business practices within the larger picture of the good food movement.

So, yeah, this comes with the territory; it’s part of the process. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the journey, right?


See this NPR article for more details about Florida’s fruit fly catastrophe.


18 thoughts on “News from our Elderberry Farm

  1. Roger,
    I am very sad to hear about your failed crop due to the tremendous pest invasions. Especially the SWD. We have made a similar experience as you this year, even though we sprayed spinosad. I am very convinced that there is no effective organic fix for these flies, but I am lacking the proof at this time. I believe this pest will cause a lot more damages in the years to come and spinosad is not controlling them sufficiently. We were also trying the organic route with them, but the way I see it now, that may not be possible, until a new organic control comes on the market. We tried conventional control on a small test plot ( our farm is rather small compared to yours) and that controlled the SWD almost completely on those plants. Going forward, we will consider that option, knowing that it will eliminate our organic approach. In the end, having a harvest of these tremendously healthy berries, albeit not organic, maybe the smaller price to pay. I am curious how other growers will react to this problem. Keep up the good work
    Andy Luegger

  2. I am a new and very small elderberry farmer in St. Charles County. MO. Been on the farm for 30 years with old elderberry bushes and I iplanted over 50 in 2014. Every day I have been walking an acre area with a soapy bucket knocking the saw fly and green stink bug off the flowers. Then a few Japanese Beetles appeared, not as many as 2 years ago. They all continued eating the green berries. The birds pecked at the ripe berries, and few berries were gathered. The worst thing that happened was the electric company spraying over half of the bushes 60 feet on each side of the line going through the property. I talked and showed the representative the bushes and that I was not a chemical sprayer. The spray crew does not know those beautiful low growing elderberry bushes! The electric company sent me 10 five gallon elderberry bushes and I will plan on planting several that I start in the spring. Farming is Tough!

    Joyce Wiley

  3. So sorry to hear about your crop loss this year 🙁

    On your large scale operation this information may be useless but just in case it’s helpful here it.

    Last year the Japanese beetles devastated my peach tree, I tried the hand smash method (two blocks of wood since we didn’t have our chickens yet) but I wasn’t consistently out there.
    After some research over the winter I read that planting Rue or Rosemary under/close to the trees as possible would keep the Japanese Beetles away (they can’t stand the aroma).
    Rue is cheaper, supposedly more effective and may work better for your operation but it came with a warning that people with a severe allergy to poison ivy may want to stay clear. My husband has such an allergy so we tried the rosemary. Specifically, I planted two large creeping rosemary about 3-4 feet from the trunk of my peach tree early in the spring.
    We had absolutely NO damage from Japanese beetles, and they ate up my almonds that were only about 15 feet away, and my apples in another part of the yard. So I feel I can confirm its a deterrent for Japanese beetles, and maybe the fruit flies won’t like it either.

    I remember Ann saying she’d lost a large rosemary last winter here in NC, so I’m waiting till spring to expand the rosemary planting to around the almonds and apples this coming year. (I want to make sure my heavy wood chip method works to keep rosemary alive this winter.)

    I hear regular fruit flies don’t like basil or pennyroyal, so maybe you could try different herbs as under plantings in different parts of the orchard and see if they help any. Once one does you could go all out.

    Good luck fighting the good fight!

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  4. HI Folks,
    Sorry to hear of the loss (albeit a bit late). I am a hopeful elderberry farmer. Wife and I are in the planning stages and it will be a while but I try to keep up on the subject.

    I would like to share a tip that we use to keep the beetles at bay in our garden. I don’t know if it will work on the flies as we haven’t had any experience with them. We are in the mountains of NC and the elevation may have some limiting factor.

    We the leaves of rhubarb to make a tea to spray on the infested plants. This has worked well with both flowering plants and vegetables. It is recommended to not harvest fruit/vegetables for a couple of days after spraying and to wash before eating as the oxalic acid in the rhubarb is toxic. Used in this way it is an organic means of repelling the beetles. The timing is just right as well as the rhubarb is full and abundant when the beetle attack. Maybe grow a crop and sell the stalks as produce and use the leaves to make the tea…..hummmm!

    However, oxalic acid can be purchased in several forms and grades but, as far as I know, not for agricultural use. I would do lots of research, verify all this and test, test, test before using on a commercial crop.

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