The Future of Fruit

While perhaps a little cool and too dry for those who actually live on a farm, this past summer did have its share of spectacular, sunny days. The last Sunday in August was one of them, and as we parked our car at Carandale Farm in Oregon and walked around to the office and visitors area we entered a scene that initially seemed somewhat familiar. What we found instead offered an insight into the state of sustainable agriculture today that was warm and inviting but also stimulating, thought provoking and one to which we felt privileged to be invited.

Fifty-plus area farmers, local food producers and crop experts were sitting in a room that opened up to an area with picnic tables where others sat, sharing information and answering questions about “uncommon fruit crops with sustainability potential” such as European black currants, seaberries, Saskatoon, Russian quince, and, especially aronia. About three hundred yards from the picnic tables you could see these uncommon fruit crops, just past the huge plot of hundreds of strawberry plants for which Carandale has long been known as the largest and longest established pick-your-own farm in Dane County.

For the last six years Dale and Cindy Secher, in what seemed to us a remarkable of blend of curiosity, entrepreneurialism and collaborative generosity, have been evaluating five hundred plants of forty fruit crop species on a three-acre test plot carved into the corner of their farm. The Sechers say in the forty-one years they’ve been growing fruit their customers have put a greater emphasis on convenient, locally grown, healthy food. So they’re experimenting with Cornelian cherry and fruiting rose, gooseberry, and red, pink and white currants, among others, to, says Cindy, “try to see what can be grown sustainably without intervention.”

It’s a partnership with the UW–Madison Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems (CIAS), which is following the fruit trials, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which has provided some sponsorship. Dane County is also providing funding through its Agricultural Enterprise Grant Program. We’re visiting on Aronia Field Day, and the focus of attention is on perhaps the most sustainable fruit of all in the trial, the blueberry-sized, grape-colored variety also known as chokeberry.

“Aronia thrives on neglect,” Cindy tells us, and of the forty-two fruits being tested it has been singled out as “tops for commercial production potential.” The CIAS fact sheet calls it grower friendly with good regional adaptability and very good pest resistance. The fruit is firm and has a long hang time after maturity, which allows for an extended harvest season. It’s also known for its processing versatility and outstanding health benefits, and on this warm, cloudless summer afternoon we try aronia ice cream, jelly, yogurt smoothies and a chocolate Josie Pradella has just added to her TerraSource Gourmet Chocolate line.

About twenty-five people in Wisconsin have test-planted aronia this past season, and much of the conversation at the farm is on possibilities for test-marketing aronia products. Researchers think the fruit could be used in fruit chips and roll-ups, baked goods and sauces, as a natural food coloring and even in winemaking. Ron and Chris Paris talked about experimenting with aronia in their Sugar River Dairy organic yogurt. A little later as we strolled through the test area the Parises met a young sustainable agriculture entrepreneur who had just started a business preserving fruit, and the seeds of another collaboration might have been planted.

It captured the spirit of the day, the meeting of experience and potential, of search and research, of the desire to try something more and the willingness to help. We felt like we were at the beginning of something special, rooted in something timeless—the tradition of agriculture nurturing the modern food system being created today.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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