Hayti couple committed to growing alternative crop

Health benefits draw interest to aronia berries

Connie Sieh Groop
Special to the Farm Forum

When a couple from Hayti refers to aronia berries, most people ask, “What berries?”

“I have to explain,” said Josh Symens. “Few people have ever heard of them and have no idea of the health benefits.”

Josh and his wife, Shannon, are committed to growing the berries and letting people know the amazing qualities of the tiny fruit that looks much like the common chokecherry, only black and packed with nutrients.

Aronia berries. Courtesy photo
From left, are Josh Symens, Shannon’s brothers Ryan Stormo and Damon Stormo, who do the custom harvesting of aronia berries. Courtesy photo

Josh shared how they got started planting the deciduous bushes.

“We were watching TV one night and my brother-in-law called to ask, ‘Want to plant some aronia berries?’ We knew nothing about the berries but then the next night, while watching TV there was a program describing the benefits of the berries. It seemed like an omen that we needed to take seriously.”

And they did.

“That was 2014, and we planted 80 plants. The following year, we planted 300 more. In 2016, we were up to 2,000 plants. Now between us and our in-laws, we have 8,000 bushes.”

Some call it a black chokeberry. It has a strong, dry, tannic flavor known as astringency, which is very sour. They are good for making wine, jelly, jams, syrups, smoothies. Some people bake with them. Some put them in salsa. They provide a natural deep purple food coloring.

“They stain everything, my hands are purple now as I handpicked some today," Josh said.

Josh Symens on the Harvester. Courtesy photo

The health benefits drew the Symens. The berries are high in flavonoids and antioxidants. The antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental and other pressures preserve cell damage caused by oxidation in the body.

Josh said they’ve learned that the aronias are among the top 8 substances in the world for antioxidants. Studies have shown that antioxidants help reduce the risk for cancer, heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, bacterial infections and neurological diseases in humans.

Some say they cleanse the body of toxins and work wonders on hangovers.

Harvest process

By mid-July, the Symens check the brix (sugar) level. They need to pick the berries at just the right time as the antioxidant levels drop when left too long on the bushes. They harvest mid-September most years — but this year is delayed.

After harvest, they cool the berries down to 40 degrees within 4 hours. They load them into trucks for the processing plant at Le Mars and Cherokee, Iowa where they clean, process and bottle the pure juice, called Puronia, distributed by Lifebrook.

The juice is made into Ax Water and independently distributed across the United States. The Symens are distributors in South Dakota.

“Many people can’t drink the juice as a straight shot of the sour juice,” Josh said. “Ax Water appeals to those who want the benefits.”

One bottle of Ax Water has the same antioxidants as in 16 cups of kale, 24 cups of bananas, or 3 cups blueberries. Every 3.5 ounces of berries contains 16.9 grams of fiber.

The Symens purchased their rootstock in Sioux Falls. The first year, the bushes concentrated on getting their roots in the ground. The Symens plant 1,000 bushes to an acre, about 2 to 3 feet apart in rows about 14 to 15 foot apart.

Aronia bushes. Courtesy photo

In year three, the yield was 2 to 3 lbs. per bush. In year 4, they had 20 to 25 lbs.; they expected a harvest of 3,500. lb. and they got 10,000 lbs. The oldest bushes are 5 years old and grow about 8 feet tall.

Last year, the Symens purchased a mechanical harvester for their own use and to do custom harvesting, which made a huge difference.

“At first, we hand-picked our bushes," Josh said. "We learned a lot. With an estimated yield at 10,000 lbs., we do not recommend handpicking. We get $1 a lb. when we sell the berries.”

Josh left last week to begin custom harvesting in Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota before returning to harvest his own. He expects to harvest 200,000 lbs.; last year he picked 105,000 lbs.

Shannon is a fifth-grade teacher at Hamlin school. She helps to provide information about the health benefits of the berries. Josh works as an electrician in Watertown.

“My dream would be to raise and harvest the berries, but I will always need to do electrical work on the side,” Josh said. “There is a lot of work in caring for them with the weeding, pruning and mowing. But they certainly are worth it.”

Josh and Shannon Symens of Hayti with their children Marnie, age 6, and Ryker, age 4. Courtesy photo