Nature's Medicine Chest
Entrepreneur and scientist Edie Johnston is on a mission to make the common elderberry Maine’s next big cash crop.
By Amy Sutherland
The elderberry bush is too good to be true. The berries pack more healthful goodies than the far more vaunted wild blueberry. With its lovely arching branches and spills of white flowers come mid-summer, the plant thrives easily, even tolerating Maine’s harsh winters and dense soils. Largely disease- and pest-resistant, the bushes live a long twenty-five years. Just one acre’s worth of the purple-black berries may earn a farmer $26,000.
But next to no one is cultivating Sambucus canadensis here.
A diminutive woman with a white bob and a bit of a Betty Boop voice who looks more like an art gallery owner than a farmer wants to change that. Edie Johnston is, among many things, an entrepreneur, a herbalist, and a scientist. She is as at home with a microscope as she is with a hoe. Like any entrepreneur, Johnston thinks big. For most people that would mean starting a business, which is a heroic endeavor in itself, but that’s small potatoes for Johnston.
In Johnston’s version of thinking big, acres of organic bushes dot the state; Maine farmers finally make a living wage with a sustainable specialty crop; the state becomes a lead supplier for an international market; and people around the world catch fewer colds. All that with one bb-size berry, practically a black speck in Johnston’s pale hand.
In 2002, Johnston and her architect husband moved from eastern Pennsylvania to Maine, where they had long vacationed. They opened a design firm in Portland and eventually bought a nineteenth-century farmhouse in the dell of Dresden. Johnston immediately noticed the elderberry bushes that sprouted around the property and hugged the shores of the nearby Eastern River. Mainers have long made cordials and jams from the berries, but Johnston, who grew up drinking comfrey tinctures and cleansing spring tonics in Vancouver, British Columbia, had another idea.
She planted some elderberries, arranged in a spiral as an experiment. They fared so well she planted three more orchards around her house and eventually another down the road. She harvested the berries, created a lab on the second floor of her ultra tidy house, and concocted a syrup from elderberries, elderflowers, wild blueberries, and agave. She dubbed it AnthoImmune, a vaguely big pharma name for a yummy-tasting herbal syrup for chasing off colds and flu viruses. In 2009, Johnston joined forces with her thirty-year-old son, Geo, also an architect, and launched AnthoImmune among the Birkenstock-shod masses at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, ground zero for all things organic and locally grown. The duo handed out 2,500 samples. The next day their phone started ringing with wholesale orders.
After Geo made a few cold calls at Whole Foods in Portland, the store put a dozen bottles on the shelf that Christmas. They sold quickly. In April, a posse of Whole Foods honchos filled Johnston’s Dresden orchards, eager to see the bushes for themselves. Now AnthoImmune, which costs $17.95 for a four-ounce bottle and $27.95 for the eight-ounce one, is sold in Whole Foods stores from Maine to New Jersey. Johnston and her son have over two hundred wholesale orders in addition to online sales.Maine Medicinals (555 Gardiner Rd., Dresden Maine 04342. 207-737-8717. Mainemedicinals.com) has accomplished the next to impossible — a small start-up that nearly instantly became profitable.
“We’ve just held on for one wild ride,” Johnston says. “We are looking to be a national distributor in three years and an international distributor in five. We are already getting emails from Asian companies interested in our elderberries.”
Johnston credits their success to filling a big void in the market, a void maybe people didn’t even know was there — a demand for an organic elderberry medicinal syrup. This demand is even more mysterious given that elderberries, despite their long use as folk medicine, aren’t well known for their healthful attributes. Regardless, research so far indicates they have them in droves.
Hippocrates reportedly called the elder tree his medicine chest. The plant has been a cure-all for centuries, used for everything from mending wounds to fending off witches. At last, the microscope found the chemistry behind the berry’s healing powers. Elderberries are high in vitamin C and A as well as rich in flavonoids and anthocyanins, the latter of which give the berry their deep purple. These chemicals may mop up free radicals and other gucky byproducts of metabolism that can erode our bodies making way for cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure, to name a few maladies.
On the ORAC scale, which measures antioxidant properties of foods, the elderberry rates very high, according to Rodney Bushway, a University of Maine professor of food science and human nutrition. According to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ranking, only chokeberries are higher. Bushway has been studying the berries, including ones specifically from Johnston’s bushes, for the past four years. He’s searching for varieties that pack the biggest antioxidant wallop and studying whether Maine’s plants have even higher health attributes than berries from other states. His research is ongoing.
Bushway is far from the only scientist looking at the berries under the microscope. Research on the plant is ongoing in Europe, Japan, and around the U.S. At least two studies have found that elderberries may help fight the flu. Dennis Lubahn, director of the University of Missouri’s Center for Botanical Interaction Studies, is investigating whether the berries consumed in high quantities could offset prostate cancer. A 2002 study at Ohio State University found that elderberries deterred tumor growth.
However, most if not all of these studies have been done in vitro, meaning only in petri dishes. How antioxidants from foods actually work in humans is still unknown. For that reason, the USDA removed the ORAC chart for selected foods from its Nutrient Data Laboratory Web site this past spring.
Regardless, the reputed health benefits of the elderberry, like the pomegranate before it, have created a growing international market, Johnston says. The American market holds potential as well. Currently the lion’s share of elderberries consumed in the U.S., mostly in juices and jams, are imported from Europe. Johnston wants Americans eating American — and preferably Maine — berries.
However, Johnston isn’t the only one with her eyes on the elderberry prize. The University of Missouri has been researching the plant for the past fifteen years or more. Oregon, Ohio, and New York already have commercial crops. Johnston believes Maine could still, even with its smaller farms and short growing season, grab the organic corner of the elderberry market. She envisions a co-op of organic elderberry farmers across the state, like Austria’s Beerenfrost Co-op, a one thousand-member-strong group that has also built a large, nonprofit freezing facility.
“We can do that in Maine,” she says. “We are looking to change the face of agriculture here.”
She’s not talking solely about filling field after field with elderberry bushes. Johnston also wants to fill farmers’ pockets. In Maine, about 70 percent of all farmers earn ten thousand dollars or less a year, according to the USDA. One acre of elderberries, according to Johnston’s numbers, could more than double the income of many farmers.
Johnston’s math goes like this. Frozen berries currently sell for roughly three dollars a pound. One mature bush produces fifteen to twenty pounds. One acre can have 750 plants. That makes for a possible gross of $33,750. Profit depends on a farmer’s cost, but in the case of elderberries, that can be very low, as low as three to four thousand dollars an acre. That’s because they demand little in the way of investment or labor. The long-lived bushes can cost as little as six dollars a piece. They can be propagated from cuttings. They don’t require yearly plowing or pruning. Elderberries must be harvested by hand, but even someone as small as Johnston can just reach overhead and snip a cluster of the juicy fruits.
“You don’t need to have incredible strength in order to harvest,” she says. “The bush is just really God’s gift to us.”
David Handley at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension isn’t as convinced. The vegetable and small fruit specialist agrees with most of what Johnson says about elderberries. What concerns him is the past. In the 1950s and ’60s elderberries were grown commercially across New England. Then viruses that didn’t kill the bush but made them unproductive decimated the industry. Elderberry cultivation faded away in practice and in memory.
“What’s got me worried as people return to elderberries is that they are going after the same varieties that were grown back then, but this virus hasn’t gone away,” he says.
Also, he’s heard similar stories before. About twenty years ago kiwi fruits were the ticket for Maine agriculture. Maine’s version, small and hairless, understandably never caught on. Next came cranberries, but their promise became a pipe dream when prices crashed.
“If you wonder why farmers cringe when they hear about the next, big, money-making crop, that is why,” Handley says.
In the past five years, more and more people have called him asking about elderberries. He tells them about the virus and warns them not to bet too heavily on one crop. “I take a more cautious approach.”
Not Edie Johnston. Last winter she and Geo launched the Eldertide Elderberry School, which is funded in part by a grant from the USDA. They accepted twenty people representing twelve farms to learn how to grow elderberries organically. Bill Whitier, who is a manufacturing consultant, is one of the students. He and his wife have a five-acre farm in Augusta. He thinks elderberry bushes could eventually help fund his retirement. So does Abbie Sewall, a sixty-year-old photography teacher at North Yarmouth Academy who has never farmed. She and her husband own three-and-a-half acres in Freeport. Sewall says, “I’d be growing a plant that can be useful and sustainable and make up to $26,000 a year on one acre.”
Johnston says that a handful of the school’s students could eventually grow fruit for her business. That is why just now she and Geo can often be found out in the orchards, reaching their arms heavenwards to cut handfuls of the ripe fruit, berries that certainly have changed their futures, and yet may change Maine’s.
Amy Sutherland is the author of three books, including What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage.