February 26, 2010

Elderberry business blossoms


— By

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Edie Johnston of Dresden makes a syrup from elderberries which delivers a powerful antioxidant punch, research shows.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Edie Johnston and her son Geo Johnston pose for a photo in an elderberry garden at their Dresden farm on Wednesday, February 3, 2010. The Johnstons make an immune-boosting syrup from elderberries that is rapidely gaining popularity and is sold throughout New England. The Johnstons hope to begin national distribution soon.

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

DRESDEN — When Edie Johnston moved to the Eldertide farm on the banks of the Eastern River, she was entranced by the wild elderberry bushes she found growing on the property.

The bushes erupted with clusters of fragrant white blossoms in June, and in the fall they were covered with shiny, deep-purple berries.

''They grow so well here,'' said Johnston.

With a lifelong interest in the medicinal properties of herbs and plants, Johnston soon decided to do some research and discovered the tart fruit has long played a role in folk medicine. American Indians and North American settlers used the fruit to make beverages and tonics. Current research shows the berries have some of the highest levels of antioxidants and flavonoids, which may have disease-fighting properties, of any berry.

Eight years after she and her husband, Phil, moved from Portland to the farm, Johnston has not only nabbed several state and federal grants to develop elderberry production, but she also is producing an organic elderberry syrup that is flying off the shelves of local health and natural food stores.

Johnston is among a group of Maine growers who are taking aim at the burgeoning demand for ''nutraceuticals'' -- food products that provide health benefits. Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner sells its bruised organic cranberries to a New Brunswick pharmaceutical and nutraceutical manufacturer; Highland Blueberry Farm in Stockton Springs makes whole-plant blueberry tea; and Avena Botanicals Medicinal Herb Gardens in Rockport produces herbal and hawthorn berry teas, extracts, powders and supplements.

Some growers are collaborating with researchers at the University of Maine Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is working to identify the antioxidant qualities of various native Maine plants -- especially elderberries, blueberries and cranberries -- and helping develop them into new products. In the past year alone, the department received more than $1.5 million to study the chemical compounds in blueberries.

''There is evidence right now they are pretty good for your health, but there needs to be more scientific studies,'' said Rodney Bushway, professor and chairman of the food science department.

Professor Mary Ellen Camire, his colleague, is working on a proposal to show that berries grown in Maine and other Northeastern states are a better source of nutrition than berries grown outside the region. She is building a network of growers and researchers to develop a market for Northeastern berries for nutraceuticals and other food products.

Camire said blueberries, cranberries and other berries with high antioxidant levels thrive in Maine's cold climate and sandy acidic soils, which put the plants under stress. Plants that are not well-fertilized or are under attack by pests tend to produce more of the chemical compounds associated with health benefits.

Johnston, the Dresden grower, enlisted her son, Geo, an architect by training, to help run the business. They have managed to obtain nearly $140,000 in grants, some of it business startup money from the Maine Technology Institute and the rest from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Small Business Innovation program, which awards $18.5 million a year for research. Only 15 percent of applicants receive grants.

''It is highly competitive, which says a lot,'' said Karen West, a consultant with the Maine Technology Institute who helps small businesses in the state obtain funding.

The Johnstons used the funds to identify the particular levels of antioxidants in various varieties of elderberries and determine which have the best horticultural attributes.

It took Edie Johnston two years to launch the business and develop a syrup that would not only taste good but also deliver a powerful antioxidant punch. She wound up with a formula that includes elderberries, elderberry flowers, agave nectar for sweetness, organic Maine wild blueberries and alcohol.

''It is delicious enough to pour on your pancakes,'' said Geo Johnston.

Although at $17.95 for four ounces and $27.95 for eight ounces, consumers might want to stick to the recommended dose of a teaspoon a day.

Each batch of the syrup is tested for safety at the University of Maine, which also conducts a chemical analysis. It is manufactured, bottled and packaged at the farm in conditions that meet federal manufacturing guidelines.

The syrup, called anthoimmune, made its debut at the Common Ground Fair in September and hit stores in October. It is now available at 25 natural food stores around the state, including Whole Foods in Portland and Royal River Natural Foods in Yarmouth. The Johnstons just landed an account at Whole Foods in Connecticut.

In the first eight weeks, they sold 4,000 bottles of the syrup.

The Johnstons' business, Maine Medicinals, is competing with several other companies that produce elderberry cold and flu products, many of them made from berries grown in Canada or Austria, the largest elderberry producing country in the world. They are also competing against other ''super fruits'' with high levels of antioxidants such as pomegranates.

Geo Johnston said what sets their product apart is that it is organic, locally grown and processed, and delivers a low glycemic load, with less impact on blood sugar and insulin levels.

The Johnstons are working with three growers who supply them with elderberries and are looking for more.

Edie Johnston, who has a background in education research, is experimenting in her own yard, where she is growing 20 different varieties of elderberries. She figured out that she could harvest 30 percent of the blossoms without compromising the berry yield.

She is also planning to branch out with different varieties of berries, including aronia, also known as chokeberries, which grow wild on her farm; and non-native berries, such as black raspberries and haskap berries.

The Johnstons are also looking at developing new products. They have created an elderberry flower concentrate that when diluted can be used to make elderberry squash, a non-alcoholic fruit drink, or cordials. They are also experimenting on a very small scale with an elderberry wine because of popular demand. Edie Johnston said people remember the elderberry wine made by their grandmothers.

''Lots of people are asking us,'' she said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:


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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Tincture of elderberries will be turned into syrup at Eldertide, the Dresden farm of Geo and his mother, Edie, Johnston. The syrup, called anthoimmune, made its debut at the Common Ground Fair in September and is now available at 25 natural food stores around the state.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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American black elderberry

Ted Bodner/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database


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