The native Wisconsin aronia berry, or black chokeberry, may be the ideal fruit for this area. It's more grower-friendly and pest-resistant than many common fruit crops, and although its potential to be marketed fresh is limited, it offers an abundance of health benefits.
"Aronia almost sells itself with its benefits to treat various conditions and just overall health," says Dale Nelson, who co-owns Bellbrook Berry Farm in Brooklyn, Wis., with his brother-in-law Bill O'Brien. There, they grow aronia berries exclusively.
In both human and non-human trials, aronia berries have been linked to anti-inflammatory properties, the reduction of blood pressure and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, and the prevention and treatment of metabolic syndrome. In an Ohio State University study on colon cancer, aronia not only halted the growth of cancer cells, but killed 20% of them.
All purple fruits contain a pigment called anthocyanin, which gives them their color and some of their disease-fighting properties; aronia is the purplest fruit of all. Because anthocyanin stays active in the system only for a few hours, Nelson explains, many of the human trials that use aronia administered a few berries three times a day - but each berry carries a lot of bang. A single aronia berry contains two times the amount of anthocyanin that an average American consumes per day. According to the USDA, aronia contains three to four times the antioxidants of pomegranates, blueberries and goji berries.
"There were only a few growers in the U.S. when we started," says Nelson. "Now there are a few hundred."
The idea of focusing on aronia took shape after Nelson and O'Brien ran across a report on uncommon fruit crops with sustainability potential by Carandale Farm owner Dale Secher and the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. Aronia topped the list.
Nelson has a background in engineering; O'Brien, economics. The scientific wow factor and untapped potential market for the unsung aronia convinced them this was the crop to pursue.
Nelson now sits on the Midwest Aronia Association's board of directors with Secher, who's been a mentor and helped propagate the berry. O'Brien also visited Poland, where the berry and its uses are well established, for tips on growing.
Now, five years into the startup of Bellbrook Berry Farm, the slow-maturing aronia bushes are just hitting their stride.
Bellbrook is the first aronia-only farm in Wisconsin. At 12 acres, it's right where they want it to be: small, sustainable and local, O'Brien says.
Bellbrook offers plants from the greenhouse for interested growers. The frozen berries are hitting store shelves in Madison at Jenifer Street Market, Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale and Willy Street Co-op East; they're also available at Yahara Grocery Co-op in Stoughton and Trillium Natural Foods in Mount Horeb.
"The flavor changes slightly when they're frozen, and I think they're actually better frozen. It's a slightly tamer animal," O'Brien says. In the future they hope to add a juice blend and sweet, dried berries to the lineup.
Aronia berries can be added to oatmeal, yogurt, baked goods or smoothies - anything with protein will chemically subdue the tannic taste, Nelson says.
Nelson's 3-year-old son and his friends can't get enough of them and eat them straight up. They're good that way too, though they do have a bite from their naturally high tannin content. Think of the way your tongue might feel after a glass of dry red wine. But it's not off-putting.
O'Brien likes to substitute aronia for raisins: "Oatmeal raisin cookies are good, but oatmeal aronia cookies are awesome." Todd Dukes, executive chef at Porktropolis in Sun Prairie, has already bottled hot sauce called "Scorched Aronia."
I enjoyed my aronia berries as a compote made with black pepper served over goat milk vanilla ice cream - for protein, of course. Afterward, I smiled a vibrant shade of purple.