Norm’s Farms has experienced some significant growth over the past couple of years and one of our greatest challenges has been to grow enough elderberries to meet the demand. We now have over 100 acres in elderberry production and Devon Bennett, who manages our farming operations, plans to put in another 20 acres this spring. It takes about three years for an elderberry bush to become fully productive. Elderberry is one of those plants that “sleeps, creeps and then leaps”. This is because elderberry spends its first year of life establishing a vigorous root system. The second year of its life it devotes to establishing a healthy base of canes and will flower and bear a bit of fruit too. Its not till the third year of its life that elderberry will produce a good crop of berries. This three-year lag time can be quite challenging because its not easy to predict with much accuracy how many tons of berries we will need three years down the road. We put in 30 acres last year during an especially difficult spring season.
Devon planted those acres with rooted cuttings he grew in his greenhouses and the tricky part was finding a window of planting time between the extended wet, cold winter and the hot, dry summer that immediately followed. None of us had very high hopes for those 30 acres but are happy to report that we had about a 70% survival rate. While that is not as good as the typical 90% survival rate we’ve had in years past, we’ll take it! Devon and his farming team filled in the bare spots by direct jabbing bare wood cuttings into the ground and reports a 60-70% survival rate for those. Devon and his farming team are true pioneers in elderberry farming.
While Europe has been producing elderberries on a large scale for decades, Devon is just one of a very few farmers doing so here in the US. Elderberry is such a new crop to farmers in the US that most of us have just 10 years or less of experience farming the American variety of elderberry, known as Sambucus Nigra ssp Canadensis. The named varieties available in the US were healthy wild specimens selected for their vigorous growth and berry production little more than a decade ago. It’s been interesting to watch how these varieties do over time, and we’ve had some surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Wyldewood, which was an extremely promising variety 8-10 years ago, has not done well over the long haul. Over time, the Wyldewood variety has gotten weaker and more susceptible to pests, draught, and viruses, and has gone from being a bit of a star in the elderberry field to being one of the worst performers. Devon plans to phase Wyldewood out of our fields completely and is currently testing other named varieties that are reported to do well in the southern Midwest. There is so much to learn about the American elderberry! The consensus among growers and researchers is that it is time to start a serious breeding program to find or create varieties that are hardy, pest and disease resistant, and more consistent in fruit ripening and plant height. Consistency in plant height and fruit bearing is critical to mechanical harvesting. At this point elderberries must be harvested by hand which is quite time consuming. Devon is actively working with the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin to become one of the nation’s first farmers to participate in such a breeding program. The University of Missouri has been studying elderberry for quite some time and will help us identify promising crosses to make, while the University of Wisconsin will be evaluating tissue samples to see if the crosses produced a unique new variety or not. Devon expects that it will take at least 5 years, and possibly 10, before any of the crosses can be fully evaluated. As for this year, we have high hopes for a great harvest-like we do every year because farming is the ultimate expression of optimism! So far the challenge Mother Nature is throwing at us is in the form of too much rain. The rain doesn’t hurt the elderberries but it makes it impossible to plant or get in or out of the fields. As soon as the rain quits and the fields dry a bit, Devon plans to plant his greenhouse full of baby elderberry plants. In three years or so, God willing and the creek don’t rise, this year’s baby elderberries will be producing tons of fruit for us.
If you are a gardener, consider growing Elderberry! Elderberry is a wonderful addition to any home garden or landscape and Norm's Farms now has well rooted elderberry plants for sale. Spring and fall are both wonderful times to plant elderberry. You can learn more about growing elderberry here and purchase plants here.