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Missouri will host international elderberry symposium

By Doug Rich

This specialty crop is not really new but the interest in it is new.

Elderberries are native to the U.S. and have been grown successfully in every state, with the possible exception of Hawaii. Terry Durham, an elderberry producer from Missouri, said elderberries can be grown in every county in the Midwest.

The health benefits of the crop have attracted people for hundreds of year. Hippocrates called elderberries his "medicine chest." Elderberries are commonly used to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, improve vision and to lessen joint and muscle pain.

"Elderberry is an understudied and neglected crop," Andrew Thomas, research assistant professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri, said. "When you look at its antioxidant content, it is nearly off the charts. It's fairly easy to grow, internationally known and has many uses including wine, juice, jams, cooking food colorants and increasingly in medicinal/nutraceutical products."

Thomas has been growing elderberries on at the University of Missouri Southwest Missouri Research Center for 15 years.

The U.S. imports 95 percent of the elderberries it uses and consumes 60 percent of the world's supply. Most of the imports come from Europe.

Missouri State University and the University of Missouri began the Elderberry Improvement Project in 1997 to develop American elderberry cultivars adapted to the Midwest. They collected 68 cultivars, picked 10 of those for the field trials and out of those 10 selected two new cultivars. Wyldewood was the first cultivar released from that program. The new release was identified and collected from the wild in 1995 near Brush Hill, Okla. It was named after Wyldewood Cellars Winery in Mulvane, Kan., which has been promoting elderberries for several years. The Bob Gordon elderberry also came out of this program. Bob Gordon collected this cultivar in the wild in 1999 near Osceola, Mo.

"No improvements had been made in elderberry varieties in 35 to 40 years," Terry Durham said. "A little bit came out of Canada in the 1980s, but nothing had been developed for the Midwest."

Research is being done on agronomic issues like different pruning methods. Pruning the plants to the ground every winter has proven to be beneficial. Durham said this forces the plants to put on new cane growth and they have bigger heads the following year. Research has shown that the year after they are pruned to the ground the average head size is 128 grams compared to 54 grams on plants that have not been pruned to the ground. Growers would need to pick twice as much to get the same harvest.

"It gave us a tool to control some of the insects that give us problems," Durham said. "We did not get our whole orchard cut down last year and we can see the difference."

The renewed interest in elderberries is a unique opportunity for farmers in the Midwest.

"All of this research is being done to develop a new crop for us that has a built-in market," Durham said. "It is rare to find something like that."

Durham is promoting the River Hills Harvest Growers' Cooperative to help farmers take full advantage of the interest in elderberry production. The cooperative is actively recruiting growers through educational outreach, at conferences, and with hands-on-workshops. Durham conducts many of these workshops at his farm near Hartsburg, Mo. River Hills Harvest Growers' Cooperative will develop, produce, and distribute elderberry products for retail and wholesale markets.

"We are looking for growers all over the Midwest, not just in Missouri," Durham said.

Durham wants to develop farmer-marketers from Minnesota to Arkansas. They are taking a unified approach developing farmers markets, as well as research and support all at the same time. Durham wants the coop to develop regionally with each having it own processor.

"We want to keep our artisan processors in each area so that it is regional and local," Durham said. "I really think that is the way to develop and put all of the pieces together locally."

Coop members would be able to sell their berries to the coop for processing. Right now elderberries are selling for $1 a pound as raw fruit or $2 a pound if they are de-stemmed, cleaned, and packed in boxes. Farmers can take that money or trade it for wholesale product from the coop to market for themselves.

"We want to pay the most to the farmer for berries that we can," Durham said. "We want it front loaded so they are encourage to grow more berries."

The cooperative hopes to sell a variety of elderberry products, including some in combination with other crops the members are growing.

"The thing that is unique with elderberries is they have a different flavor and it is a wonderful color," Durham said. "You can use it to add value to anything you are making."

Elderberries have a unique flavor and distinctive color that can be used in a variety of food products, but a new use for elderberries has emerged recently in Missouri. Elderberry bushes are considered a conservation crop when they are part of a riparian buffer strip. The Natural Resource Conservation Service said elderberry plantings qualify for use in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program. Durham is in the process of planting several acres of elderberries on a conservation area that adjoins his land for dove habitat.

If you would like to learn more about elderberry production the University of Missouri will host the first international symposium on elderberries in 2013. The symposium will be held June 9 to 14 in Columbia, Mo. Andrew Thomas said the international symposium can fast-track the growth of Missouri's elderberry industry.

"I feel honored that they chose our area to have the symposium," Durham said. "The research trials that the university has done have allowed us as farmers to have good plant material to work with. There is huge potential in Missouri."

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at

Pull quote:

"All of this research is being done to develop a new crop for us that has a built-in market," Durham said.

Date: 7/23/2012


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