A MEC Member Benefit
The Midwest Elderberry Cooperative (MEC) was formed in 2012 to be the vehicle by which small farmers could work together to determine the feasibility of wide-scale production of elderberries in the state and region and then commence operations. Food safe, quality elderberry production requires that the harvested crop be de-stemmed and sorted, properly sanitized, packed into sealed food grade plastic buckets at the standard weight of 25 lb. each and kept frozen until sold to make value-added juices, wines, concentrates or freeze-dried powder.
MEC’s founding steering committee consisted of five producers with experience in elderberry production, marketing, plant propagation, and cooperative marketing. This committee reviewed a business plan prepared by Cooperative Development Services (CDS) with the help of a prior State of Minnesota Value Added Grant. The committee members decided to implement a financially conservative approach to this well-studied business plan by purchasing the core equipment required to harvest, sanitize and process elderberries for commercial wholesale and retail markets. Since then MEC’s Board of Directors continues to apply this principle as we work towards establishing the infrastructure necessary for the decentralized elder flower and berry harvest, storage and processing operations across the continental USA.
Description of Challenge Addressed
Primary reasons for MEC to acquire processing and sanitizing equipment:
- Present federal and state food safety regulations and market demand requires, or pays a premium for, de-stemmed and sanitized elderberries.
- Elderberry is a perennial crop that requires 2-5 years to establish, and sales of early production exhibiting high quality standards are necessary to encourage future market growth and to fund pioneer grower field management and development during these early years.
- Reduces capital risk to growers who are field-testing elderberry cultivation in order to decide how this perennial might fit in their farm’s land use/management plan.
- Helps farmers to focus available capital on increasing sustainable production, which will give the cooperative berries and flowers to aggregate and sell into new and existing markets.
- Production use of existing technology stimulates research and innovation derived from experience in harvesting and processing elderberry fruit and flowers leading to new tools, equipment and processes.
- Potential to serve smaller growers who want to just harvest and not de-stem or sanitize their elderberry harvest long term.
MEC supports the development of member growers from planning and planting to harvest and aggregation of fresh and/or frozen berries and flowers for re-sale to food processors or elderberry juice producers. Part of the cooperative advantage lies in small to medium size grower access to shared capital equipment, such as an elderberry de-stemmer and freezer space, and other resources that would otherwise be out of reach financially. MEC provides key intangible resources such as education about and documentation – supervision of cultivation, harvesting and processing practices that meet or exceed federal and state food safety and product quality standards.
A number of our commercial scale growers have developed acreage long enough to harvest commercially significant levels of elderberry cymes. Some growers are developing up to 50 acres of cultivated elderberry. Others do not expect to devote more than two acres to elderberry, which they will sell directly into their local market or as part of their on-farm value added businesses. In both cases timely access to harvest processing equipment and procedures can make the difference between a commercially marketable yield or not. The urgency of solving the harvest and processing challenges is projected to reach an economically critical mass by the summer of 2015 as related in MEC’s Business Plan developed by Cooperative Development Services with help in part from a previous MDA VAG grant.
More research and development needs to be done to develop better destemming processes and equipment.
2020 Minnesota Department of Agriculture Value Added Grant (MDA VAG)
On April 14, 2020 MEC was awarded a $24,000.00 matching grant from the MN Department of Agriculture Value-Added Grant program toward’s towards the purchase ($96,000) of multiple mobile elderberry destemming solutions over three years. MEC will utilized this grant together with its credit line with CoBank to facilitate grower purchase of and access to this equipment. These stainless steel Destemmers will meet state and federal requirements to safely remove the small berries from the cyme for resale in the wholesale market – usually 25 lb. frozen berries in 4 gallon, food grade buckets. MEC would welcome outside donations to enable coop ownership of destemmers that could be shared by smaller scale producer growers and their communities.
2015 Minnesota Department of Agriculture Value Added Grant (MDA VAG)
In January of 2015 MEC was awarded an MDA VAG of $3,418.75 to assist the cooperative, which is 25% of the total purchase of processing equipment from onFarm Storage, Inc. and food grade buckets from Uline at a total of $13,675. The remainder of the purchase price will be provided by MEC in cash during the project period from existing capital and/or a bank line of credit.
MEC used it to purchase an Elderberry De-stemmer, food grade buckets, stainless steel baskets and sinks in order to process and sanitize harvested elderberry for market. This equipment will be mobile and easily moved by a member grower with a pick-up and/or light trailer, who wants to rent the unit for harvest, or for MEC to transfer to farm locations so that the cooperative may provide processing services to growers’ fresh-picked elderberry crop according to all regulatory requirements and MEC quality standards. In addition, MEC bought 4-gallon capacity, square pails and lids from Uline. These buckets meet industry standards of holding 25 lbs. of de-stemmed berries capacity each. According to the 2015 catalog, the price for model #S-13650 + S-13651 is $6.25 per set (pail +lid), enough to hold 6000 lb., which comes to a total of 240 bucket-lid sets for $1500.
Terry’s Elderberry Destemmer
Essential Field Equipment
for Small-Medium Scale Elderberry Farmers
Soil Health and Nutrient Density a High Priority
There are essentially 3 cultural methods to establishing elderberry orchards:
(1) Planting through flat or raised beds of mulch with drip irrigation;
(2) Planting through a thick layer of a previously killed cover crop mix;
(3) Traditional planting into the open field like most horticultural crops.
Because USDA certified organic methods do not allow the use of plastic - an option for method #1, and to make raised beds requires heavy equipment that would require considerably higher capital investment, we have chosen to address the needs of the last two, though some of this listed equipment would also be very useful to growers who do chose the first method. The first method is one that is focused primarily on resolving the weed control issues, which we effectively address with methods #2 and #3. All equipment is to be sized to be compatible with a 35-40 HP tractor and to attach with a 3 point, category I, hitch.
1. Imants Spading Machine
Purpose and use: Primary and secondary tillage in one pass, to “double dig” and aerate the soil, to incorporate green manure crops and organic matter, to increase water infiltration and retention, to prepare field with the most biologically-friendly method of soil disturbance for planting in “open” field (where no-till is not used). This pricey machine could initially be omitted because most growers will already have some means of tillage. The use of this spader would only speed up the healing and building of soil health process.
Purpose and use: In nature, the ground is always covered with vegetation. Even if we plow, disk, or till it bare, within days zillions of seedlings start covering the soil, protecting it from erosion, and feeding the invisible microflora below the surface. Ecologically minded growers attuned to nature have imitated it by seeking to keep their fields covered with vegetation at all times. A drill allows for close seeding of cover crop seed mixes that rapidly cover the soil. Growers need one that can cover a solid field, or that can be used to establish cover crops between rows once established. In the latter case, the unit needs to be able to “drill” very closely to the established rows.
3. Cover-Crop Roller-Crimper, ground driven
Purpose and use: To enable growers to use cover crops and leave them in place (no-till culture), but kill the cover crop before planting with elderberries without the use of toxic herbicides. This method improves soil health by raising organic matter, providing a very favorable environment for rapid earth worm and soil life multiplication, prevent wind and water erosion, substantially increase water holding capacity, maintain a cooler soil temperature on hot summer days and assure a longer warm soil temperature in the fall to extend the root growing season and thus maximize elderberry growth and yield.
4. Water Wheel Planter, single row, w/ wheels
Purpose & Use: This machine, with the proper planting spikes, is able to plant directly into bare ground, through plastic, or through a thick layer of mulch (killed cover crop), while also supplying water and/or nutrients to each plant. Spacing is variable and easily changed. The equipment needs no power from the tractor. This makes MaxiPlug planting is a breeze. Could be used for planting cuttings, but definitely NOT for use with bare rootstock. For farmers diversified into vegetable production, it is a favorite transplanting machine for vegetable plug starts.
5. Single-Row Hydra Weeder
Purpose and use: Weed control is indisputably organic farmers’ #1 cultural challenge and a major yearly cost. Having an extremely efficient and effective tool to the control the weeds mechanically, especially during the first year, will affect the speed of growth and maximize yield. Because of their rapid growth, abundant suckering, and heavy foliage, if the first year does not retard growth because of weed competition, subsequent years of weed control are much less challenging. For farmers diversified into vegetable production, it is a favorite weed control machine for practically any vegetable or berry grown in open ground, i.e., not through plastic.
6. Dual axle ag equipment trailer (to haul any combination of this
equipment from farm to farm.)
Purpose and use: To make this cultural farm equipment useful and practical for growers scattered through the Upper Midwest, it is essential that we also have a low-boy ag trailer that can be pulled by farmer’s own (or rented) ¾ or 1 ton pickup truck and move it rapidly from farm to farm.
MEC seeks financial assistance in the form of grants from Minnesota and Wisconsin based food cooperatives, business, associations and foundations to assist in the purchase of share harvest and cultivation equipment. Individual gifts are gratefully accepted with the mutual understanding that NO INCOME TAX BENEFITS/DEDUCTIONS will apply to any grantee or gift.
How to contribute to the Shared Equipment Fund online.