If Teresa Santiago were standing on a basketball court rather than in an organic field in central Illinois, her moves would go down in history as a triple-double. Santiago is the largest aronia grower in the region. But the real excitement comes from research into the health benefits of aronia. By some measures, aronia has the highest cancer-fighting antioxidant levels of any berry.
If Teresa Santiago were standing on a basketball court rather than in an organic field in central Illinois, her moves would go down in history as a triple-double.
Santiago is the largest aronia grower in the region. Aronia, also known as black chokeberry, was widely used by American Indians but virtually wiped out locally as row crop agriculture gained favor. Aronia has remained a popular fruit in Eastern Europe.
Santiago started experimenting with aronia by planting five bushes in 2001. Her Woodford County farm now has more than 1,200 aronia bushes.
But the real excitement comes from research into the health benefits of aronia. By some measures, aronia has the highest cancer-fighting antioxidant levels of any berry.
Additional health benefits are linked to diabetes, urinary tract infections, cardiovascular ailments, digestive problems, hypertension, cholesterol and even viruses such as colds and flu. Some advocates claim aronia helps strengthen memory. Others say it has anti-inflammatory qualities, which would reduce symptoms for people with arthritis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is researching the aronia berry, as well as the elderberry and lingonberry, in an effort to make these lesser-known crops more popular.
"When you eat something healthy that tastes good, it makes you feel good in a number of ways," Santiago said. "Aronia is native to this region, but I've never seen it in the wild."
She received a grant from Rick Bayless' Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2006 and went to Poland to study the aronia juicing industry. She has tweaked her formula like a vintner. This summer she is introducing Sunny Lane Aronia Farm juice to the public. She also sells frozen berries and jam.
Last year, production from half her two-acre aronia field produced 900 pounds of berries. This year, with the maturity of her bushes, she is expecting to harvest over 7,000 pounds.
"Once you plant this, it's almost an obligation to care for the bushes. Obviously, you have to enjoy what you're doing, but this is not just about making money and supporting my family. It feels like doing a little bit to make a difference," said Santiago, who has a degree in biology education and used to teach before becoming a full-time organic farmer.
Teresa's Fruit and Herb Farm started on three acres with 30 different kinds of fruit and 30 types of herbs. Sunny Lane Aronia Farm grew out of Santiago's early work with Viking aronia plants. She has expanded her aronia production to two additional nearby acres.
Santiago's aronia field began blooming in early May with beautiful clusters of white flowers punctuated with pink stamens. The flowers are similiar to apple blossoms because aronia is in the same family as roses and apples.
"Our goal is to grow the best-tasting, most nutritious food while protecting the soil, water and air for future generations," said Santiago, who does not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides or fungicides.
Aronia berry harvest is late August to mid-September. Santiago will work with local churches, clubs and not-for-profit organizations during harvest. She will pay 40 cents per pound, meaning the average picker will earn about $7 an hour. A church or group that organizes 10 members to pick for one four-hour shift can earn about $300.
Last harvest season she worked with 4-H Clubs, churches and three women who donated their earnings to polycystic disease research.
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or email@example.com.