West Branch’s story begins in 2015 somewhere around Orange City, Iowa, which is quintessential small-town Iowa… quiet, friendly, family-filled. Not far from the Minnesota and South Dakota borders, Northwest Iowa is renowned for its fertile topsoil, the “black gold of Iowa,” the creme de la creme of soil.
Kevin, Mark, and Verlyn joined in a vision for 16-acres of pristine land, nestled in Northwest Iowa’s infamous row crop farming landscape. This land could tell a different story. It could be home to revived elderberries… a crop native to Iowa, but overrun today. It could also be an opportunity to contribute to community care and betterment. It could be an opportunity to grow a food that was healing, healthful, and organic.
So in January of 2015, it was settled and 36,000 elderberry cuttings of five different species were collected from an elderberry orchard in Missouri. These cuttings, planted first in the greenhouse, were transplanted into that infamous black gold two months later. With 16 acres planted in Orange City, another 8 acres were planted in neighboring Sioux Center, Iowa. With careful planning and irrigation development, we were excitedly anticipating the first elderberry harvest.
And in 2016 the first harvest knocked everyone off their feet. No one was anticipating so much bounty, so many happy berries. We scrambled to find community members, family members, anyone near to help harvest. It was clear, seeing all those friends and family walking the rows, that this was a unique and beautiful way to bring together and foster community. Often families and church groups join us for harvest to connect and earn revenue for projects and to learn more about our unique process.
The crew behind West Branch always knew they wanted to be a part of reviving and regenerating Iowa’s Black Gold. They wanted to transition the land out of conventional corn and soybean production and instead farm a crop that was of high nutritional value for all.
To do so, to regenerate land, to grow and sustain a nutritionally-dense elderberry, careful practices ensue.
In 2019, we became certified organic. This means that we grow and maintain berries without the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. Instead, we utilize practices like organically certified inputs and various custom nutritional products to feed and fertilize our plants.
Each year we are inspected and reviewed by MCIA (our organic certifier) with onsite inspections. These are rigorous and include inspections of all our facilities, procedures, and documentation. We, too, are yearly inspected by the State of Iowa for processing of berries, facility space, and storage procedures.
We believe strongly in intensive care for all parts of the elderberry’s journey. These practices and our unique crew allow us to pay close attention to each part of the plant’s journey to you. And this is why our berries are so darn happy.
So much was learned from that first year in berry growing, and particularly after that first heavy harvest. Automating the processing piece of harvest—that piece where berries are destemmed, washed, and bucketed for sale—was imperative. With no automated elderberry picker on the market, the crew bought a used berry processor and converted it for elderberry use.
We too had to find creative and safe storage for all our crop—both freezer space and low-humidity space. A series of reefer trailers have become home for the goods awaiting shipment.
We have enjoyed selling primarily whole berries to wholesalers or companies for their products. It’s been a way to connect to those outside our community about health and wellness and farming. Our whole frozen elderberries, dried or dehydrated elderberries, and raw elderberry juice (the juice that’s released during dehydration), have made it to happy customers from East to West.
We have our elderberry jam in many local stores and businesses, always in high-demand. We have our elderberry brandy also in area stores, always a hit too.
And most recently, a commercial kitchen, awaiting inspection, has been added to the scene. This will be where our new retail products are cooked up fresh like our ever-tasty Tonic and DIY Cook Kits.
We are currently in an exciting phase of rebranding and evolution. We are ready to create our own products using our own berry and berries of other growers whose principles are similar and high. And we’re centering on creating products and systems that can provide all with West Branch’s healing elderberries. Keep your eyes peeled here and on our Instagram and Facebook pages for exciting product releases!