Could elderberries become Iowa's newest farm crop?
By ASHLEE STALLINGA
Mt. Pleasant News
SALEM — Kurt Garretson has had many adventures. Now he’s about to start a new one, in the form of an elderberry farm.
Garretson, 28, from Salem, lived with his family in nearby Washington, Iowa, and then the Chicago suburbs before he went to college. He’s living near his family again now, this time on their family farm: the oldest continuously owned farm in Iowa. It has been in the family since 1837, and — including Garretson — 10 family members currently live on the 800-acre property.
But Garretson hasn’t been there very long. He hasn’t been anywhere for very long, actually.
After he graduated from college, he worked with the Iowa Democratic Party on a political campaign in 2004…but that didn’t go well.
“I hated it,” he said.
So he joined the Peace Corps, because he didn’t know what else to do.
“I was a political science and history major, and I ended up planting trees,” Garretson said, laughing.
He planted those trees in central West Africa for two years to and two months to help stop desertification before returning to Iowa.
After he got back, he worked as a one-on-one paraeducator at Van Allen Elementary for a few months.
Then he set out again, this time for Japan. For a year and eight months, he taught English in Japan, a place where he had studied abroad in college.
“I lived just inland of where the tsunami hit,” Garretson mentioned. “You know the video of all the water crashing over the walls? Yeah, right there. All my friends actually live on the coast. Thankfully, they’re all alive.”
When he left Japan, Garretson spent one month in Rutledge, Mo., as an intern at an organic farm. Three intentional communities there grow 80-90 percent of their own food, as well as sorghum as a cash crop.
“I knew I wanted to do something with gardening or farming,” Garretson said. “But I also wanted to be near home. For most of the last decade, I’ve been out of America. I thought it was time to put my roots down better and be close to family.”
So the world-traveler returned to his family’s farm in Salem.
“It was a good call,” he says, looking back. “My grandparents aren’t getting any younger, and my nieces are getting older.”
But though he believed he made the right decision, he still wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do. But he did know how he wanted to do it.
“Since the Peace Corps, I knew I have wanted to do something with non-conventional farming, and show people that it’s a viable source of income,” Garretson said.
Garretson’s father had recently made elderberry wine in Burlington, and mentioned to Garretson that it might be something he could do.
A little more research proved that true.
Elderberry plants are natural to this area, and they often grow in ditches. They love water. They don’t require the maintenance that grape vines would. To Garretson, those were all good reasons to grow elderberries on the farm. There was one other reason, too.
“My dad, my brother, my uncle and my neighbors all brew their own beer,” Garretson said. “I thought I’d start something different.”
But although they seem like a perfect crop, elderberries require some patience.
“Elderberries are a two- or three-year investment before they pay off,” Garretson explained. “I would also like to do chestnuts — and originally I only wanted to do chestnuts — but those are a seven- to 10-year investment…and that’s a long time.”
Garretson is not worried about the wait, and he’s not worried about the work he’ll have to put in to farm his way.
So far, Garretson has hand-planted his acre and a third of land, and hand-cut nearly a mile of cardboard, used to keep the ground around his plants moist. He intends to do all his harvesting by hand as well.
Between the 1,400 elderberry plants, of more than 10 varieties, Garretson left plenty of room for fescue, barley, and clover.
“[Those plants] help cultivate the soil and make it better,” Garretson said. “Conventional farming leeches the soil, so chemicals have to be added to it. I want to replace the nutrients naturally. There won’t be as high of a crop yield, but it will be more stable and healthy, and there will be much less erosion in rainstorms.”
Eventually, he will also add apple, pear and plum trees — “Really, anything to make wine out of,” he said.
Right now, he has about 15-20 elderberry plants already flowering. More will flower in June, and they’ll be ready to harvest in August or September. But Garretson doesn’t look for any spectacular harvest.
“I’ll get no more than a couple hundred pounds [of elderberries], and that’s if I’m lucky,” Garretson said.
But within the third year, he’s expecting a much higher yield.
“I’ll be looking for 2,000 to 3,000 pounds, and it could be up to 7,000,” Garretson said.
Initially, he intends to sell the berries to a winery, because elderberries make a good additive. He would like to make his own wine, but doesn’t have the equipment — at least, not on a large enough scare.
“We have made 15 gallons of [elderberry wine] already this year,” Garretson said.
It’s not something the family has done in a while, but Garretson can remember his grandpa making the wine years ago. In fact, according to Garretson, that seems to be a trend.
“Usually when you mention elderberries to someone, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember my grandpa used to make elderberry wine,’” Garretson shared.
But no one really connects elderberries with farming.
“I’m the only elderberry farmer in Iowa, that I know of,” Garretson said.