Elderberry at East Grove Farm

Kurt Garretson with elderberry plants at East Grove Farm in southeast Iowa. Photo courtesy of East Grove Farm.

Kurt Garretson with elderberry plants at East Grove Farm in southeast Iowa. Photo courtesy of East Grove Farm.

East Grove Farm is a family business that specializes in elderberry products and other heritage crops. Owner manager Kurt Garretson is part of a regional elderberry cooperative

The philosophy is the more elderberries, the better. Elderberries are such a new thing that everybody’s learning. The more growers we have nearby, the more we can help each other, share equipment costs and save by shipping together.
— Kurt Garretson

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Farm & Farmer Background Read
Management Overview Read
Marketing and Economics Read
Goals Read
Lessons Learned Read
Other Related Information Read

Farm & Farmer Background

East Grove Farm is a family enterprise managed by Kurt Garretson on Iowa’s oldest continuously settled farm, established in 1837 by his ancestors. Garretson started farming in 2009. He is working with other family members to create a farm business that specializes in heritage crops, including elderberry. Garretson is a grower for a regional elderberry cooperative that assists with processing and marketing, and provides training and networking support.

Garretson grew up in Chicago, but spent much of his summers on the historic family farm in Iowa where his grandparents lived. After college in Illinois, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, where he worked on a sustainable development project, planting gum-arabic trees, an acacia species valued for multiple products.

Garretson is starting out small and growing slowly as he works toward organic certification. About five acres are in production now, with plans to add about 10 more acres within a year. He has access to an additional 70 acres. Timber covers almost half the farm’s 800 total acres, and other family members own other portions of the farm.

Other family involved in East Grove Farm include Kurt’s brother Justin, an MBA working in Des Moines, who helps with the farm’s paperwork and marketing, and parents Joel and Marlene. Joel started winemaking a few years ago, and in 2012, he was named Iowa Amateur Winemaker of the Year for a green-gauge plum wine from heritage fruit grown on the farm. The Garretsons plan to produce their own East Grove label wines and open a winery at the historic house they are renovating to serve as the farm headquarters.

Management Overview

Elderberries are East Grove Farm’s primary crop, at least for now. The farm is a grower for River Hills Harvest, a processing and marketing cooperative. Kurt chose elderberry as a native plant that grows well in his area, even in places where row crops won’t grow. He likes that it’s a perennial, that doesn’t require the ground to be plowed up every year, and it is also a product with growing demand due to its health benefits.

Garretson started in 2010-11 with about 1,200 elderberry plants on just over an acre. He now has about five acres in production and will be adding 10 more acres in 2014. Elderberries were also planted along property boundaries and in two new shelter belts, along with hazelnuts and wild plums. The focus in 2013 is on preparing the ground for planting next spring and filling in gaps from trees lost during two years of drought. Land that will be planted to trees is first prepared with a cover crop of oats and clover to improve soil fertility and organic matter. We’ve taken both fallow ground and conventionally tilled ground and seeded it down in cover crops so that new plants will have healthier environment with less weed competition.

Other crops at East Grove’s Farm include native varieties of white peaches, persimmons and green gauge plum. They are also experimenting with Aronia berry and chestnuts, though Garretson says they “haven’t had much luck propagating chestnuts.”

Elderberry as a crop

Elderberry is in growing demand, due to research that has shown the berries have anti-viral, immunity-boosting properties that are at least partially credited to high levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Midwest elderberry grow into large multi-stemmed shrubs, with white cream-colored flowers that form in flat clusters known as corymbs or cymes. The plants flower in June and ripen by late summer into the late fall. The berries range from dark red to black to dark blue. Currently, harvesting is done by hand, so it is very labor intensive.

The Garretsons have been trying different elderberry varieties, including hybrids and local wild plants taken from cuttings. Characteristics they are looking for include condensed fruit clumps that ripen all at the same time, and heads that fold over to hang upside down, which are not as attractive to birds. Ripening at the same time is important to make harvesting easier and also because unripe elderberry fruit can create cyanide in the stomach, a challenge for commercial production. Also, fresh berries do not keep well, and have to be immediately used, frozen or processed.

Garretson’s first plantings were severely tested by drought conditions in 2011 and 2012. Some varieties were more drought-tolerant than others. The improved varieties had an excellent survival rate, according to Garretson, especially cultivars “Bob Gordon” and “Ranch,” which came from the University of Missouri. He found two wild varieties that performed “very well,” which the family has named “East Grove” and “Mae Berry” (named for a neighbor).


When possible, the Garretsons are trying to use equipment already on the farm. Father Joel has restored several antiques to use, including old John Deere and Oliver tractors, a steel-wheel wagon, a seeder, and a two-bottom plow. They have also purchased new equipment, including a Rain-Flo mulch layer and water wheel planter, which cut planting time to a fraction of that required by hand-planting.

A new 16×48 greenhouse, which is under construction, which will allow them to start green cuttings all year round.

Marketing and Economics

East Grove Farm’s products include, or will soon include:

  • River Hills Harvest® elderberry juice, cordial and jelly
  • Elderberry and elderflower wine

In the future East Grove Farm also anticipates selling elderberry plants as cuttings and producing elderberry vinegar.

 Regulations for juice processing are strict, says Garretson. Meeting the standards is one of the advantages of working with the River Hills Harvest Co-op, which works with farmers to provide a high quality product. At East Grove Farm, the freshly harvested elderberries will be quickly cleaned, packaged in 25-pound food-grade buckets, frozen, and then sent to Missouri for processing.

Most of East Grove Farm’s elderberry products are being marketed directly to the Iowa grocery chain, Hy-Vee, where the Garretsons have developed relationships through personal visits to stores. The River Hills Harvest elderberry products are also be marketed through the co-op. The juice is sold in cases of a dozen 11-ounce bottles. Smaller 4-packs, and individual bottles and jars of jelly, can be purchased online from River Hills Harvest.

The elderberry products are selling very well. East Grove Farm has run ads in the local Iowa Source newsletter, based out of Fairfield. As more crops come into production and the farm expands, Garretson expects to expand marketing efforts.

Another marketing avenue will be the winery, which the Garretsons envision as a focus of farm-related ecotourism. They are restoring a 114-year-old Victorian house on the land to serve as the farm’s headquarters and the winery.

As East Grove Farm gets started, Kurt has worked part-time off the farm at a Community Supported Agriculture vegetable farm and he also provides custom services: planting and mulch laying, tilling, soil testing and setting up electric fences for deer control.

Sources of assistance have included family and also US Department of Agriculture farm conservation programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Programs that East Grove Farm has utilized include:

  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) cost-share to use cover crops and develop and implement a pesticide management plan to transition portions of the land to organic practices.  They also received cost-share to build a pond for irrigation.
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rental payments. Some of the land will come out of CRP in 2013, but about 10-15 acres of prairie will stay in the program.

Goals at Early Boots Farm

  • Create a viable and “enduring” business on historic family land
    • “I want to do something on this farm that’s been in my family for 176 years,” says Kurt Garretson. “I want to not lose topsoil, in fact, to create topsoil. To be enduring, and to be profitable, so I can make a living here.”
  • Build community with family, neighbors and other elderberry growers
    • Garretson spent time at an intentional community at Sandhill, Missouri, returning to his family farm when he realized he had there the type of lifestyle that many others were seeking. He carries his appreciation for the benefits of community into his work through participation in an elderberry cooperative and sharing his music with family, friends and others.
  • Show people that farming is not all corn and soybeans
    • Garretson says they hope to bring people out to the farm, perhaps for events such as an elderberry festival, to see a different type of farming. Already, he has had students visit from Iowa Wesleyan College as part of outdoor classroom activities highlighting sustainable farming and land ethics.


Lessons Learned

  • Perennial crops that take a few years to get established require patience. “Sometimes it’s better to take your time,” says Garretson. “I believe it will pay off in the long run.”
  •  Start small and learn as you go. “For example, our first year, we started root cuttings in a greenhouse and in the spring, we transplanted them into fields that had been in corn and soybeans for more than a decade,” says Garretson. “We mulched them with cardboard covered with woodchips for weed control, but the wood chips ended up tying up soil nutrients, especially nitrogen, that the new plants needed. Now we’re looking ahead and doing more prep work, like planting into ground where cover crops have been growing to improve the soil. We’re using a plastic covering for weeds, which also warms the ground early. And we plan to get plants in the ground earlier to take advantage of spring rains. We’re been getting better rooting this way, which gets the plants off to a better start.”
  • Garretson appreciates the co-op model of River Hills Harvest, a project started by Terry Durham of Eridu Farm in Missouri. “The philosophy is the more elderberries, the better. Elderberries are such a new thing that everybody’s learning. The more growers we have nearby, the more we can help each other, share equipment costs and save by shipping together.”
  •  “My family has been here since 1837 – it’s the state’s oldest “settled,” farm, in continuous ownership by the same family. I’m the 6th generation – my nieces are the 7th. So the idea of thinking ahead to the seventh generation makes sense to us.”

Other Related Information

– July 2013.  Case study created by Ann Y. Robinson for the Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group.