November 23, 2016
In 2015, after seeing yet another year of unprofitable commodity prices, Zach Mykisen and his family decided it was time to head in a new direction.
Mykisen farms 500 acres of corn, soybeans and sweet corn with two brothers and his father in Bancroft, Wis. Even in the best of times, the farm is too small to make commodity crops profitable, he says. “You need to have a niche.”
They decided they needed an easy-to-grow crop, because each of the farmers also has other jobs. First, they considered ginseng, which promises a hefty premium but requires a lot of management, a huge up-front investment and years to mature.
Then the Mykisens discovered aronia berries.
Aronia is the new name for chokeberry, an indigenous sour-tasting berry whose nutritional properties and antioxidant levels are said by its promoters to exceed those of the better-known blueberry. (Photo: gojak/Thinkstock)
Aronia is the new name for chokeberry, an indigenous sour-tasting berry whose nutritional properties and antioxidant levels are said by its promoters to exceed those of the better-known blueberry. The berry appears to have a promising future in the health and nutrition market.
The family planted 13,000 plants over 10 acres this past spring, and financed the venture themselves. They hope the new direction will offer a hedge against commodity crops on other acres.
The Mykisens are not alone in their efforts to counter the continuing slump in corn and soybean prices. In its February projection to 2025, USDA predicted a slow but steady rise for soybeans and a more modest increase for corn over the long term, but little short-term respite for either crop. So across the Midwest, farmers like the Mykisens are taking steps to mitigate the downturn.
Many farmers will add a new crop or related business to complement their existing operation. “Diversifying always comes up when we have low prices,” says Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois ag economist.
But new ventures present different challenges — and varying levels of risk. Will the new crop work with the current rotation? Will you need new buildings or equipment? What’s the expected payback period on the initial investment? What’s the minimum acreage needed to ensure payback within a three- to five-year range?
Aronias have made some inroads into the North American market (Eastern Europe and Russia cultivate the berry commercially). An association exists to promote aronias, and the berry is gaining traction in the natural-food marketplace as both a juice and ingredient, says Andrew Pittz, whose family farm — Sawmill Hollow in Missouri Valley, Iowa — was the first to grow the berries on a large scale and market them in North America.
Crop insurance is available once the berry bush begins production.
Mykisen knows of small companies who buy it and has heard processing ventures may be starting up. But there’s still “a fair amount of risk,” including a three-year wait for the crop to produce, and the lack of an established market.
Next: read about farmers who added fresh veg and value-added crops to their commodity lineup
Mary Baxter is an award-winning journalist writing from London, Ontario
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