By Julie Ann Madden
On Friday afternoon, a new type of “threshing” machine was whirring and clanking as it shook little purple aronia berries off nearly 1,900 plants at the Bluebird Orchard, located one mile south of Akron.
This harvesting was the dream culmination of John and Mary Lucken’s latest farming endeavor.
In 2009, the Luckens planted 88 aronia bushes at their orchard and in 2011, they added another 1,800 plants.
It takes about three years for the aronia plants to produce their first crop of berries, said John, explaining he has planted two varieties Black Glossies and Vikings.
“This is our first major aronia crop,” he said.
And it is a bountiful crop, said Mary, giving credit to Akron-Westfield students Jacob Bergman and Chance Hoffman who worked all summer in the orchard, mowing and weeding around the plants and pruning the plants. “They are one of the reasons we have such a good harvest. They took good care of the plants.”
The Luckens have handpicked the berry crop until this year when they hired a father-son duo from Merrill to bring their aronia berry harvesting machine.
Martin Pippett, and his son, Mike, planted 4,000 aronia berry plants on their own six acres. They didn’t want to handpick their berry crop so they bought this aronia berry harvester.
In addition to harvesting their own crop, they are custom harvesting the delicious little berries for at least four other aronia berry producers in northwest Iowa.
While Martin grew up on a farm, this is both his own and his son’s first attempt at farming.
“My son had nothing to do with farming until this,” said Martin, explaining their regular careers are delivering bundles of Sioux City Journal newspapers to several towns north and south of Sioux City.
On Friday, Mike was driving the tractor and Martin was making sure the branches were entering the machine properly and the berries were rolling down the machine’s small conveyor system and into yellow plastic rectangular containers.
Aronia berry production is a brand-new crop in this area, said Lucken, explaining not even the berry threshing equipment is perfected yet.
“There still hasn’t been a machine created that can reach the lowest branches of the aronia bushes,” said Lucken, explaining when the small plants, which are about 3 feet tall at maturity, become heavily laden with the berries, some branches may hang clear to the ground.
The Pippetts’ machine is good but they already had it modified to make it even more efficient. It was modified by Sheveland Welding owner David Sheveland of Akron — special metal bars were added to the front of the machine.
They have solved some of the problem but not all of it, said John.
Some of the branches are still too low to go through the threshing machine properly. Therefore, there is still a need for a crew of hand-pickers to go through the rows and gather the rest of the berries.
So, if there is anyone out there with the creative desire to invent an even better aronia harvesting machine, the Luckens are interested in hearing about it.
Once the berries are gathered, they are transported immediately to the Tony Heisterkamp’s Eden Valley Orchard, just northwest of Akron on the South Dakota side.
The berries are run through Heisterkamp’s “de-stemming” machine which removes the berries’ stems. Next, the berries are washed clean and boxed. Then the boxes are loaded into refrigerated trucks and transported to a cold storage facility in Le Mars.
“These berries are just being introduced into the consumer market,” said John, noting consumers may find some aronia berries at area grocery stores.
While John handles much of the actual aronia farming, Mary is busy on the marketing end.
“People are supposed to have 10 to 15 aronia berries a day,” said Mary, explaining aronias are even better antioxidants than blueberries.
People eat them fresh from the orchard or right out of the freezer, said Mary. Or one can add them to yogurt, oatmeal, cold cereal, pancake batter, muffins, applesauce, apple pie and apple crisp — and that’s just a few of the ways she’s experimented with so far.
Her favorite use is making smoothies. Mary makes juice smoothies in the morning and dairy smoothies in the afternoon.
Just toss a few aronia berries in the blender with juice in the morning — Mary prefers orange or apple juice. In the afternoon, it’s some ice cream, a few berries and a little milk to thin the mixture a little.
Aronia berries are so easy, said Mary. Just pick them, place them in freezer bags and freeze them until you’re ready to use them.
Don’t wash them before freezing them as they will stick together, she said. Remove the amount of berries you want to use and rinse them with water.
“And know that you have eaten something very healthy and locally grown,” said Mary.
For more information on aronia berry production, call the Luckens at 568-3336.