Barry County, Mo., entrepreneurs corner the market in U.S. elderberry production
A small town in Barry County, Purdy, Mo., lays claim to being home to the largest elderberry production operation in the United States.
With 120 acres of elderberries now planted in multiple locations throughout Southwest Missouri and in other parts of the United States, Innovative Natural Solutions got its start shortly after Purdy native Devon Bennett came home from his senior class trip to Europe in 2012.
While in Europe, Devon’s eye was caught by mature trees covered in white blossoms prevalent throughout much of the continent. Upon questioning, he was told they were elderberry trees, grown for their blue-black fruit prized for its use in nutritive supplements.
After returning to Purdy, Devon began to research the fruit’s production in the United States, and discovered its use for commercial purposes was still relatively experimental.
“I saw what appeared to be a golden opportunity to get in on the ground floor of commercial elderberry production here in the U.S., while the market was wide open,” Devon said.
“I’ve always been a jump-before-I-walk kind of guy, so I took a flying leap.”
After much research and discussion with agricultural experts – including Andy Thomas, a horticultural professor at the University of Missouri’s Southwest Center in Mount Vernon – the following year Devon plunged into his own grand elderberry experiment.
“Not much was known about the long-term commercial prospects for elderberries in 2013,” Devon said. “Not a lot of research had been done regarding the best types of cultivars for our climate, nor how pest-resistant they would be, nor whether the market would even be receptive to the product, but I didn’t let it intimidate me.
“With lots of help, I started by hand-planting seven acres of elderberry cuttings on acreage near Purdy,” Devon continued. “An average acre can accommodate 750 to 1,000 plants; rows are about 10 feet apart, and plants are spaced 4 feet apart within the rows. When you consider that 10 acres of elderberries, planted and harvested by hand, are the approximate equivalent in man-hours to 200 acres of corn or soybeans, you get a feel for what elderberry production really means.”
According to Devon, elderberries do not produce berries for commercial use during their first season. Rather, any flowers produced are pinched off to encourage further growth of the plant. The next year, though, Devon was able to sell his first crop to a gentleman in Kansas City for distribution in the Wichita, Kan.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jefferson City, Mo. areas.
Buoyed by his success, Devon looked to expand his production the following season, but realized he needed a firmer grasp on where the market was going.
Enter Brittany Lueckenhoff, his wife Chelsea’s cousin.
Brittany, also a Purdy native, had sat in on many an elderberry conversation between Devon and her father, Ed Mareth, as they hashed over marketing possibilities for the innovative commercial crop.
“I realized I wanted to be a part of the elderberry project,” Brittany said. “I was still working on completing my elementary education degree out of state, but saw this as a unique now-or-never opportunity. I made the decision in 2014 to partner with Devon. In January 2015, we were putting up the greenhouse that currently still sits on the back of the farm off Highway 37. That spring, we planted the 8 acres adjacent to the highway in elderberries while I was finishing up my degree, set to graduate that fall.”
The duo partnered up to form Innovative Natural Solutions, and put together an initial five-year business plan with an aggressive marketing strategy.
“We had three basic goals,” Devon said. “To manage a supply chain for our elderberries, to create a processing plant to supply retail products and to create our own consumer brand.”
They have been successful in all three endeavors. They have established a production facility in Purdy, which operates full-time, year-round, to produce, package and label elderberry products. In numbers which show that Americans are interested in immune-support, for which elderberries are gaining renown, Innovative Natural Solutions produces and supplies approximately 10,000 to 12,000 bottles of dietary supplements per week from the facility in Purdy. Their main volume, according to Devon, is in the wellness products category.
In 2016, Innovative Natural Solutions met the owners and co-founders of Norm’s Farms, a North Carolina, family-owned elderberry production business, at a trade show.
“They were in search of a consistent supply for their business,” Devon said. “It just seemed like a natural fit for us to team up with them, so we began negotiations to do so. In 2017, we acquired a majority share of Norm’s Farms. With the acquisition, we were able to make Norm’s Farms a nature-to-nurture company, starting from the farm all the way to the finished product you see on the shelves today.”
The elderberry market has exploded since then.
“We now have elderberries planted on different sites in Barry and Lawrence counties, as well as on contract-grower sites throughout the United States,” Brittany said. “We like to separate the acreages, so we don’t risk losing all of our crop production at once due to natural causes, such as a tornado or hailstorm.”
According to Brittany, the elderberries must all be picked by hand, so it is literally all hands on deck during this time.
“Several people join our team during the harvest season to ensure we don’t get behind,” she said. “In addition to extra seasonal help, Innovative Natural Solutions and Norm’s Farm employ just under 20 people in their sales office and production facility, with more added regularly.
“We’re now supplying major companies in the nutraceutical space across the United States,” Devon added. “We want to keep the business in Purdy, but we may outgrow our production facility; if we do, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, our motto continues to be ‘Elderberry, every day, for everyone.’”