Life at Norms
2017 was a great year for our little business and the first three months of this year were even better. So good, in fact, that we are going to have to grow a lot more elderberries. Our farming team, headed up by Devon Bennett, has answered the call and they’ll be putting in another 30 acres of elderberries this spring. We have tried a variety of methods for planting elderberries. We’ve tried direct jabbing the unrooted cuttings into the field, starting them in sand beds, and starting them in greenhouses too. Over the 6 years that Devon has been farming elderberry, he has found that starting them in the greenhouse works the best for him. Jabbing the unrooted elderberry cuttings directly into the ground saves a lot of time at the planting stage but a dry and warm winter will result in a poor rooting rate. While it takes a lot more time, money, and energy, getting elderberry starts rooted in the greenhouse first results in a far better success rate in the field. The process for rooting the cuttings is pretty much the same; rather than jab the cuttings into the ground we jab each cutting into a bio-gradable peat pot. The greenhouse environment ensures that the cuttings never dry out which is so essential to establishing a healthy root system.
And, it’s a lot easier to nurture and protect thousands of cuttings in a greenhouse than a field. To determine which varieties to plant, Devon and team manage a couple small test plots where they grow different varieties to see which ones will do best in the fields. The test plots are planted with Marge, York, Adams, Bob Gordon, Ozark, Wyldewood and Ranch, and year after year, three varieties perform better than all the rest. The winning varieties for us are Bob Gordon, Wyldewood and York; not only do they produce an abundance of berries, they tolerate heat and cold better than the rest, do well in drought, handle the occasional flood, and seem most resistant to pests. Getting the elderberries started is just one piece of the puzzle. When they aren’t working in the greenhouses, Devon, Marcus and others have been busy preparing the 30 acres for the elderberry starts. They’ve been amending the soil with some good compost, minerals, and other soil amendments. Elderberries prefer a soil Ph between 5.5 and 6.5 and preparing a new field to receive elderberries requires testing the soil’s Ph level and amending the soil if the Ph falls outside that range.
The best time to plant the elderberries in southern Missouri is within the first couple weeks of May. Devon and team use a water wheel vegetable planter that allows them to run the irrigation lines at the same time they plant the elderberries. We’ve found that the biggest enemy to a healthy elderberry orchard are weeds and lack of moisture, so once the field is planted, the rows will receive a top dressing of mulch. We’ve tried a variety of mulching materials too; saw dust, straw, and aged bark mulch. Saw dust tends to get too compacted and can prevent rainfall from settling around the plants. Straw has its problems too as it often carries weed seed in it, so this year Devon will be mulching with oak bark mulch. It will be a couple of years before the new 30-acre orchard yields a substantial crop of fruit for us. Fortunately, we have several farming partners that supply us with berries too and we think we should have plenty to keep us supplied until the new field is producing. We have plans to plant another 45 acres or so next spring too. Keeping our supply chain full of the great tasting, anthocyanin-rich American elderberries that make our products taste so great and so good-for-you is critical to our success and we are lucky to have talented farmers on our team!