Fruit grower tests high-nutrition, unusual crops

Photos courtesy of Barb Mulhern.
Dale Secher keeps a close watch on the European black currant plants in his test plot. To date, this unusual fruit has adapted well to conditions in the Midwest.

When Dale Secher began operating Carandale Farm in Oregon, Wis., 40 years ago, his major goal was to provide healthy, nutritional food for people in the area. Today, along with his wife Cindy, they use as few chemicals as possible on the strawberries, fall raspberries, Concord grapes and other fruits they grow, and they are achieving success with unusual fruits that have potential to be regionally produced and sold.

“Over time, I became very interested in the tremendous resources that are being used to ship food from all over the world. I feel there is a complementary food item that can be produced regionally,” says Secher, who has devoted 3 of his 118 acres to test plots for the experimental growing of high-nutrition, unusual fruits.

“The idea is that these fruit crops have to be economically sustainable—a grower has to be able to grow them profitably; they have to be environmentally sustainable over the long term—they can’t mine the environment and create environmental debt; and they have to be socially sustainable—in other words, keep the distribution of wealth local,” he says.

The Sechers started their test plots in 2003 after seeing a catalog from a nursery “that had Asian and European connections,” he says. Initial funding assistance came through a Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection competitive grant for projects that are likely to stimulate the state’s agricultural economy. “The cost of this is not cheap,” Secher notes. Funding from grants for the first three years assisted the Sechers with taking land out of production, purchasing materials from around the world, installing a deer fence and various other costs. Since that time, they have funded the continuing testing on their own.

Aronia, the “super berry”

The unusual and little known fruit crops from around the world the Sechers have grown are evaluated for a number of factors. These include …

  • whether or not they are “grower-friendly” (how easy or difficult they are to grow, including how labor-intensive they are);
  • how susceptible they are to pests and diseases (and whether or not they can be grown with the use of no chemicals or with the use of very few chemicals, using an integrated pest management (IPM) approach);
  • how well they adapt to soil conditions in the Midwest;
  • whether they have the potential to be profitable for the grower; and
  • the quality of the fruit itself.

All of the fruits must also have high nutritional value. Among the many fruits the Sechers have tested that have not done well are Ukranian Persimmon, which is struggling to survive; Cherry Prinsepia, which was adaptable, but eliminated from the Sechers’ test plot last year because the fruit quality was unacceptable; Magnolia vine, which appears to be sensitive to hot summer temperatures and may not adapt to the clay-based soils in the region; and pawpaw, which remains in the trial, but appears to lack hardiness and adaptability in the region.

The three high-nutrition fruits that the Sechers have determined are very adaptable and ready for large-scale production and marketing trials:

  • Aronia—Also called the “super berry,” Aronia has approximately three times the antioxidant content of blueberries and is the most grower-friendly fruit crop the Sechers have tested to date. A deciduous shrub native to eastern North America, Aronia has multiple canes, spreads readily by root sprouts, is adaptable to a wide range of soil types and is resistant to drought, insects, pollution, wind and disease. It can be mechanically harvested and has a long harvest window. Aronia is not a fresh eating berry because it has high tannin content, but the taste can be mitigated with processing.
  • European black currant—Four different cultivars are being evaluated, but overall, the European black currant has adapted and fruited well. While this fruit will also require some processing to achieve its marketing potential, the Sechers believe it can be grown in an environmentally friendly manner in the Midwest region. This is a popular fruit in Europe, in part because of its high vitamin C content.
  • Sea Berry—This fruit crop is highly valued in eastern Europe and other regions of the world in large part because it is high in vitamin C and other vitamins. The fruit is ripe when the bright orange berries appear. “Sea Berry is a good substitute for citrus in this area,” Secher says.

In August, the Sechers held an Aronia Field Day at their farm to generate interest among growers, local food processors, policymakers and others in forming networks of growers and small processors to increase the fruit supply and develop strategies to market the fruit throughout the region.

“Educating the public is a very slow, tedious process,” Cindy says. “You have to provide people with information on what you can do with this (fruit). In the future, we will be providing some recipe sheets.”

Dale Secher checks on the progress of his Aroniaplants. The berries here are not yet ripe. Aroniais known as the “super berry” because of its high antioxidant content.

While education of the public does take time, research has shown that the average shopper is willing to pay a premium price for locally produced foods—even those that are more common than the fruit crops the Sechers are testing. In one recent study, researchers from Ohio State University surveyed shoppers at 17 midwestern locations and found that the average retail shopper was willing to pay 48 cents more for strawberries that were grown locally, and farm market shoppers were willing to pay 92 cents more. The researchers concluded that there is a good market for growers who want to produce and market food for local distribution.

In the case of Aronia, European black currant and Sea Berry, the Sechers have already talked with the owners of Sugar River Dairy in Albany, Wis., which processes yogurt “and is very interested in using these fruits for yogurt flavorings,” Cindy says. In addition, a Madison, Wis., chocolatier, Terra Source Gourmet Choco-lates, “is using Aronia and Sea Berry as a filling for organic dark chocolates. This is our first commercial application,” she says.

The future

Dale and Cindy have a detailed plan in place for what they believe needs to happen in the next five years to carry on their work to the next level:

  • Comparing production techniques to determine best management practices tailored to the local region. These include, but are not limited to, propagation, planting, spacing, maintenance, harvesting and handling techniques.
  • Concurrently form a network of growers who agree to plant significant acreage of one or more of the test crops. Secher notes that this will likely take some cost-sharing incentives. The growers would use similar production techniques and would compare such issues as soil type, sun exposure, slope and drainage.
  • Assemble a product development team of small processors. Network with these processors to design a product development plan. Provide them with small amounts of the unusual fruits to establish protocol and conduct sampling seminars with trade groups.
  • Design a marketing plan that can be implemented through existing channels, and explore potential regional marketing. Conduct accelerated marketing tests and explore labeling and branding options to capture identity and added value as locally produced and processed products.

Secher believes that after three years, best management practices to maximize yield, reduce costs and minimize risk should be fairly well-established. Marketing price potential should also be emerging to the point where the original grower network members and new growers “will be willing to increase acreage without cost-sharing incentives,” he says.

Finally, Secher believes that by the end of five years, production and marketing should be far enough along to attract further investment.

The Sechers, who are seeking funding sources to help further this project, have, nonetheless, taken some major steps on their own.

“I have contracted with Knight Hollow Nursery (in Middleton, Wis.) to produce 5,000 Aronia plants for me,” Secher says. Knight Hollow Nursery uses a process called micropropagation to propagate certain plants from tissue culture, which enables the plants to get to the market quicker than by using traditional methods.

“I have a major investment in these 5,000 plants,” Secher says. “They are scheduled for planting in 2009. I would like to get other people (growers) involved. Nobody wants to take a chance, but somebody has to take a chance. We can’t do it all ourselves.”

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer.