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Dale Hilgenkamp leads a group of visitors on a tour of the farm during their fall at the farm event on Sept. 20.

In 2016, Leah Fote purchased 20 acres of land just outside of Paxton, and she wasn’t sure what she would do with it. Today, approximately 24,000 aronia berry plants fill up that space and make up the backbone of her superfood enterprise.

“My husband and I farm traditional crops: corn, soybeans and we have a cow/calf operation, but I wanted to do something different,” Fote said. “Obviously the trend is to get healthier, and what is the latest, greatest product. So when I came across an article in USA Today about an Aronia berry farmer and the story intrigued me, so I started my research on the Aronia berry and then decided to go for it and start planting.”

With that, Good Berry Farms was born.

In the beginning, the biggest challenge was consumer awareness. Likely due to its unique flavor/texture the aronia berry is not a household item, at least not yet, so Fote had to get creative, and that led to a product line of jellies, teas and even pancake syrups.

“Ultimately, the goal is to get rid of the whole crop, but that would be a quarter of a million pounds, and I would probably have more if I picked the whole field,” Fote said. “That’s a huge amount and since the market isn’t there, you don’t see Old Orchard making an aronia juice or things like that.”

Fote was able to work out a deal with a Colorado-based smoothie franchise, which buys a large amount of her berries each year, and the rest are used in her own products. She started selling the items at the antique store she owns in Paxton, and saw the jellies selling well, while also raising the public’s awareness to the existence of the berry and its benefits.

Such benefits include extremely high levels of antioxidants, good for fighting chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. The berry is grown natively in North America, but is also grown extensively in Europe, and part of the success it has had there is what led Fote to the berry in the first place.

“I watch what’s happening in Europe because they’re always a little bit more ahead of us,” Fote said. “It’s huge over there. It’s in all the fancy drinks and cocktail mixes.”

She hopes, in time, the berry will catch on the same way in America, and in the meantime, she’ll keep marketing her own products on social media and trying to bring more awareness to the existence of the super berry.

Fote’s farm is far from the only one in the region, with many other operations calling eastern Nebraska and Iowa home. Berries on the Hill in Arlington, just northeast of Fremont is another such aronia berry farm.

What started as a traditional farming operation of soybeans and corn, run by three brothers expanded over the last nine years into today’s 25-acre patch of berry bushes. 

Dale Hilgenkamp was born on the farm that has been in his family for 150 years and heads up most of the day-to-day operations. His three daughters and their families help with marketing and other aspects. The foray into aronia berries began rather naturally, as natural remedies were somewhat of a passion for him.

“Our dad has always been just curious about unique or off the map health things like eating cloves of garlic and just random things you wouldn’t hear normal people talking about doing to stave off illness,” Emily Dickson, Hilgenkamp’s youngest daughter, said. “I think that was part of the appeal for him to the aronia berry.”

Along with the heightened health interest, one of Hilgenkamp’s brothers had ventured into grape-growing and the aronia berry was starting to catch on in that community.

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Dale and Nancy Hilgenkamp (center) pose with their family at Berries on the Hill’s Fall at the Farm event on Sept. 20. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Hock)

This year more than any in the farm’s history is a turning point of sorts. After hosting a fall event open to the public which included a 5K as well as tours of the farm, community vendors, and a variety of aronia berry products, Hilgenkamp and his three daughters are trying to market their berries as well as connecting with the community in a different way.

“What we’re transitioning into now, what we see a real future in, us having a direct relationship with the customer,” Laurie Hock, the middle daughter, said. “There’s really been a pivot point I feel like even just in this summer of some things my dad had a vision for, like how can we develop our own products. It’s exciting when it’s going into something else, and rewarding to see that; but really feeling like there’s a lot of ideas and innovation we can do as a family, getting aronia-branded things out uniquely there.”

The pivot Hock referenced specifically means the farm is venturing more into the production of their own products, creating an identity for themselves that the public can immediately recognize as the supplier of their superberries.

Part of that production means experimenting with different product options, most notably, aronia berry ice cream.

“Mom and dad have been working on this ice cream recipe for a long time, and I won’t lie, my family has not minded being taste-testers at all, we’ve kind of had fun with that,” Amy Hartman, the oldest daughter, said. “Just recently, I think they figured out exactly how they want it to go, and it’s been a really fun product to have at the farmers markets and it’s been fun to watch people come back every week to get more because they really are liking it.”

Both farms share the sentiment that the biggest objective right now is increasing the public’s knowledge and awareness for the berry itself, as well as their specific operations. In the meantime, the owners of Berries on the Hill wants to be known as a farm that is family-oriented and incredibly connected to better the people in their community.

“Now we’re really saying ‘what if this is a family-based, locally developed thing as we see people wanting to have a direct relationship with who they’re buying and sourcing their food from,’” Hock said. “So I think that’s something we’re really looking to capitalize with. Where like in hosting the event, we know the faces, we know the names, the people feel like we’re a gathering place for the body, soul and spirit.”

Hello, I'm Will. I am a writer and designer hailing from Washington state. I work all the time, and when I'm not working I like to watch and play sports.