Once a year, Dale and Nancy Hilgenkamp’s grandkids get to look like Smurfs.
The kids don’t wear costumes to resemble the blue cartoon characters.
They just help with the Aronia berry harvest on their grandparents’ farm about 5 miles northeast of Arlington.
“When we harvest, our grandchildren help at the back of the harvester and eat them by the handfuls,” Nancy Hilgenkamp said. “They come in looking like little Smurfs.”
Aronia berries are small, dark-colored fruit that grow on bushes.
Not to be confused with chokecherry, which is a different plant, Aronia berries are also called chokeberries.
Aronia berries have a dry, astringent taste, but can be an ingredient in pies, served on cereal, mixed into yogurt and baked into cookies, breads and muffins. The Hilgenkamps have made Aronia berry ice cream, too.
The Hilgenkamps’ Aronia berry venture began after Dale’s brother, Gene, planted grapes on the home place about 15 years ago. The home place, which has been in the family for more than 150 years, lies north of Dale and Nancy’s farm.
Gene learned about Aronia berries from some fellow grape growers.
“We looked into it,” Dale Hilgenkamp said. “They were relatively new and unknown here.”
In their research, the Hilgenkamps learned that Native Americans have long used them as a cold remedy.
The Hilgenkamps believe Aronia berries do help prevent colds and flu.
“You might get a little touch of a cold or something, but if you do it’s generally short-lived and very mild,” Dale Hilgenkamp said.
They’ve learned that Aronia berries have many other health benefits, too.
For one, they are a good source of antioxidants, which help protect cells from damage and can support heart and immune health.
Aronia berries are high in tannins, known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
The berries contain anthocyanins, which studies have indicated have a role in inhibiting the growth of tumors, are anti-inflammatory and are useful in fighting chronic inflammation, increasing blood sugar control in diabetics, preserving cardio-vascular health, relieving allergy symptoms and improving night vision.
WebMD states also that laboratory studies indicate that Aronia berries may reduce cancer cell growth in people with certain types of cancer. The site indicates that more research needs to be done to confirm if the same results will be found in humans.
The Hilgenkamps add that more research on Aronia berries has been done overseas than in the United States.
Aronia berries have a long history. They once thrived throughout North America but disappeared only to resurface and grow throughout Eastern Europe in the 1800s.
“Today, we are seeing a resurgence of the growth of Aronia berries in North America as they make their name as a super fruit,” Nancy Hilgenkamp said.
Aronia berries are native to the Midwest.
“They’re a little bit later-blooming than a lot of other plants, which helps protect against the late freeze,” Dale Hilgenkamp said. “They’re pretty drought-hardy and resistant to a lot of diseases and insects. Of course, the Japanese beetle really seem to like them.”
In the fall of 2009, Dale Hilgenkamp planted about 7,500 bushes on approximately 12 acres of ground on his farm.
Gene and their brother, James, planted them on the home place.
“We planted quite a few plants so we could justify buying a harvester,” Dale Hilgenkamp said.
It takes about three to four years before Aronia berry bushes start bearing fruit. By the end of the third year, the Hilgenkamps had a small crop, which they handpicked.
The bushes began producing more on the fourth year. They use a harvester to collect the berries. The harvest takes place during the last week in August or first week in September when the berries are very dark purple. The Hilgenkamps’ children and grandchildren help with harvest.
“It’s definitely a family affair,” Nancy Hilgenkamp said.
As soon as they’re harvested, the berries are put in a refrigerated trailer. The berries go to Wisconsin for processing and are put in cold storage.
Hilgenkamp said many items can be made from Aronia berries, like juice concentrate or powder.
The Hilgenkamps also host “Fall on the Farm,” converting a bin into a concession stand.
Their daughters Amy Hartman of Fremont, Laurie Hock of Bennington and Emily Dickson of Overland Park, Kan., update the Berries on the Hill Facebook page.
The concession stand is open on the first and third Tuesday of each month. People can call and order berries, juice and baked products. They come to the farm to purchase and pick up the products.
Hartman takes products to farmers’ markets in Fremont.
She enjoys telling people about Aronia berries.
“Most people have never heard of them,” Hartman said. “It’s fun to see people’s faces when they hear that this has always been in Nebraska and we haven’t realized what a gem we have in our backyard.”
Hartman typically brings frozen berries, bread, brownies, muffins and, sometimes, ice cream to the farmers’ markets. She always sells Aronia berry lemonade by the glass.
Back on the farm, Hilgenkamp grows corn and soybeans and spends a good deal of time working with the Aronia berry bushes.
“I really enjoy working with the plants and keeping them neat and weed free,” he said.
Nancy Hilgenkamp said she likes seeing people who are helped by and who enjoy the berries.
“We have families who bring their kids out and pick by the buckets,” she said.
Hilgenkamp said Hartman, a teacher, would bring her second-grade class out during the harvest season for a field trip.
“For about four years, we’d have 75 second-graders come and they’d be here for two hours,” Nancy Hilgenkamp said.
The children would be able to pick and taste the berries and learn about the Aronia berries.
“They loved being out on the farm,” she said.
The Hilgenkamps are looking at producing some of their own products in the future.
Hilgenkamp is president of the American Aronia Berry Association, which has members in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.
The association is planning a conference in March 2022.
In the meantime, the Hilgenkamps will enjoy growing berries and watching their grandchildren have a little competition.