HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) — Six area farmers and their families are looking to reap the benefits of a berry once relied upon by Native Americans for medicinal purposes that has recently become a much-coveted product in the health food industry.
Trüronia is the brand name for the organically grown aronia berry products offered by farmer Scott Dinkler of Hastings and partners J.C. and Joel Starr of Hastings, lumber yard and landscape business owner Keenan Friesen of Sutton, organic farmer J.J. Granstrom of Holstein, and J.J.’s father, Johnny Granstrom, and daughter, Sammy Granstrom
Their joint business venture is taking aronia berries from the ground of local farms to the kitchen table at their processing plant on 12th Street and Minnesota Avenue.
The plant is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Customers are already flocking to purchase 30-pound cases and 25-ounce bottles of the locally grown antioxidant fruit. And for good reason.
The Hastings Tribune reports that eight times higher in fiber than prunes, aronia berries are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, a compound found in foods that fight certain radicals in the body. Research studies link aronia consumption to multiple health benefits, such as decreasing inflammation, battling cancer, improving blood circulation, weight control, and increasing white blood cells.
And while FDA requirements prohibit companies marketing aronia berries from staking such claims, Dinkler has seen enough first-hand evidence to convince him of the superfruit product’s role as “nature’s healer and protector” as outlined in Trüronia literature.
“Anybody can Google aronia berry and find out all these properties,” he said. “I can’t tell you it’s going to decrease your inflammation or help with your white blood count. What I can tell you is that this is an amazing fruit. Health people know what aronia is.
“It is the highest antioxidant fruit we know about. And what is really awesome is that we grow it right here in the Midwest. We’re not just a corn- and soybean-growing state. We can grow some really wonderful things, and aronia is one of them.”
In addition to the products currently offered at its Hastings plant, plans are to saturate the local market in the coming months with a line of products that includes both dried and frozen bags of berries, snack bars, and four flavors of blended aronia drinks: Coconut, pineapple, mango, and original aronia. From there, they will look to conquer the Tri-Cities and Los Angeles markets, with a long-term goal of becoming a major presence in the health food industry.
“We’re going to get those two markets figured out and move on from there,” he said. “Our end goal is we want to be the next Suja, POM Wonderful or Kool-Aid, something that’s known worldwide.
“It’s been a very steep learning curve, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. We’re all farmers involved in agriculture in some way or another. We don’t want to rush it.”
Bottling is handled in California and the Midwest, with the Hastings processing plant handling the packaging and juicing of the berries fresh from the field. In that process, berries are run through a harvester, which bends the plants over and vibrates their leaves. Berries fall into a conveyer that sends them through a blower to extract insects, leaves, and other imperfections. From there, they’re loaded onto 40-pound flat trays and delivered to the factory in a refrigerated truck.
At the factory, berries are run through another conveyer to continue the purging process of removing leaves, sticks, and imperfections. A de-stemmer detaches the stems as the berries are washed before heading to another conveyer, where they are color-sorted by a computer program that keeps only the darkest, ripest berries while discarding the rest.
The best fruit containing the highest antioxidants will be dark purple or black, Dinkler said.
The chosen fruit is further purified in a sanitation tank that removes dust and dirt before heading through a dryer. A crew of four to eight inspectors then hand-pick out any damaged or imperfect berries missed before sending the cream of the crop through to the final process, where they are either loaded into 30-pound boxes or juiced and stored in barrels for distribution.
As an organic product grown without the use of pesticides, Dinkler said, Trüronia’s berries are naturally sweeter and better tasting than their non-organic counterparts, which in many cases are supplemented with sugar to offset their bitter taste. Health benefits also are amplified through the organic growing process, he said.
“All of our practices are organic,” he said. “That’s what sets us apart. Putting different chemicals out there to keep weed control down kills all the microbiology, which prevents mineral uptake.
“When you let the plants grow the way God intended, they pull up minerals out of the soil. The Brix, which is the level of sugars and minerals in the plant, go up because the minerals skyrocket. People want these for health benefits, so why would we want to dump chemicals out in our fields?”
What makes aronia berries especially appealing to Nebraska growers is that unlike other berries that thrive in tropical climates, they actually require a freeze-thaw cycle that corresponds precisely with Nebraska winters. It’s one more reason Dinkler thinks the timing may be right for aronia berries to take the next step to becoming a staple crop choice for Nebraska farmers.
“It has to go through that freeze-thaw cycle to fruit and flower, so it’s really unique in the sense that it loves our climate,” he said. “That’s kind of cool.”
Becoming an industry giant overnight is hardly a realistic goal for an upstart company, however, and Dinkler said Trüronia has no such expectations. Instead, plans are to take it slow and do it right, a concept he admits is sometimes easier said than done.
“We have a wonderful product and everybody who sees it and tastes it absolutely loves it,” he said. “Our demand is growing faster than our ability to produce it reliably and safely and we’re not going to rush it. It’s a great problem to have (but) when you’re excited about something you want it to go fast. Common sense tells you to take a step back and make sure we’re proceeding correctly. As we grow, we’re constantly learning.”