They say it takes a village to raise a child. At Fellowship Farms, they know it takes a whole community to raise a farm! In 2015, five families dreamed together of starting a farm. They spent three years connecting with other specialty farmers and made especially close connections with several farmers involved in a new and exciting crop. One that was gaining popularity in Iowa but had not yet seen much growth in Illinois: aronia berries!
Aronia, sometimes called black or viking chokeberry, is not an altogether foreign plant to the Midwest. It is widely considered an adaptable, hardy perennial landscaping plant and can be found both growing wild and hidden in plain sight across suburban landscapes. Native American tribes, from Aronia’s native range across the Eastern and Central United States, used these dark, very tart and astringent berries in a wide range of food dishes. Shared with Europe and Russia in the 1800s, aronia has grown a huge following in many countries and is recognized as a “superfood” for its high concentrations of polyphenols, especially anthocyanins.
While aronia is a well known crop worldwide, there are very few farms that focus on the crop here in the United States.
In 2018, the families of Fellowship Farms took the leap together to plant roughly 26 acres in one crop: Aronia berries. They’ve worked together to raise that crop – four families living on the property and a fifth supporting from out of state. They’ve built custom wash stations, expanded their freezer space, and partnered with another farmer to secure and share a custom aronia harvester (built in Poland, the only manufacturer of aronia harvesters).
The aronia bushes produced their first crop three years ago. Starting off on the best possible foot, they’ve exceeded all expectations for production. Last year saw a harvest of 10,000 lbs from bushes that are less than half their mature size. But finding sales outlets for berries is difficult. Aronia is still new to the local area as a food ingredient and succeeding in being specialty crop farmers for a niche crop like aronia hinges on finding buyers.
Fellowship Farms believes their community is the key to raising the success of their farm. Aronia may be popular worldwide, but for Fellowship Farms what matters is a much smaller demographic – local eaters.
Fellowship Farms has focused their efforts on spreading knowledge of their crop to increase demand. They do this by identifying businesses and community partners to be enthusiastic champions of aronia. Roughly four times a year, Fellowship Farms hosts large community events on their farm. These events are opportunities for the public to meet a community of fellow (or soon-to-be) aronia lovers, cultivated by Fellowship Farms. The Fellowship Farms families know that each attendee to one of these events is an opportunity to spread a love of aronia a little further into the community, an opportunity to secure another buyer, an opportunity to grow the farm’s business. Beyond the primary four events, Fellowship Farms also hosts U-pick dates, invites photographers to utilize the bushes’ beautiful spring aronia blossoms or flaming fall aronia foliage, and maintains a robust social media presence promoting aronia.
The berry bushes at Fellowship Farms have several more years to grow to reach their top height of almost nine feet. That’s a lot of berries to find buyers for. Luckily, when the families of Fellowship Farms planted little, baby, aronia bushes and launched their farm dream, they also began to grow their community. Each year they cultivate that community, adding to the enthusiastic businesses using their berries, sharing with new customers, making new connections. All because the families of Fellowship Farms know it takes a community to raise a successful farm.