Whoever would have thought there was an aronia farm near Chicago where they could pick buckets-full of aronia? Grażyna Muszyńska did.
Two years ago, Muszynska, of Barrington, Illinois, was searching the Web for aronia and found Coldbrook Farm (ColdbrookFarm.net). She bought a case of frozen berries to make juice. This summer she called again to ask if she could pick fresh aronia with some friends. When she arrived, she walked over to a bush, picked a berry to taste, and smiled.
Nestled in the Kankakee River Valley outside of Momence, Illinois, Coldbrook Farm grows aronia in America’s heartland. To the south, sod grows. To the north, east and west, corn and soybeans grow. The neighbors have been curious about the grower, John Pilcher, who grew up on a farm in western Illinois but left when he entered college. He couldn’t get the farm out of his system.
While living in Seattle, Washington, he witnessed a wide range of food crops – very different from his upbringing. He fell for berries of all kinds, including gooseberries. After moving back to Illinois, he researched higher value crops and learned about aronia berries. Their uniqueness intrigued him. They’d been grown commercially in the United States for only about 20 years. He bought some land, planted aronia bushes in 2009 and installed a drip irrigation system to assure table quality fruit.
This aronia is grown sustainably, with no herbicides or synthetic insecticides, unlike most aronia in Poland and the U.S. Non-GMO, it sells in this country because of its high antioxidants, which reduce cholesterol.
The group of eight from the Chicago area’s Polish community arrived. They were thrilled to know that there’s an aronia u-pick field close to Chicago. Seven of them, Polish-born, had eaten aronia in their first country. Some had picked them there.
The guests had their choice of berries, those on the established field or four acres with younger plants. The most juicy berries were clustered in the young patch; so everyone, bright orange bucket in hand, chose it. Pilcher watched men and women team and talk as berries fell into the buckets. They spoke Polish the entire time, enjoying the moment. One woman kicked off her sandals and walked barefoot between the rows.
The picking lasted three hours. Afterward, everyone stood around in a circle, continuing to share Polish deli meats and cheese and their beloved first language. Some of the guests proved to be serious pickers. Two left the field with 60 pounds; a third, with 30.
One of the women said she’d dried aronia. She didn’t know that everyone would be leaving with a small tub of dried sweetened aronia berries, Coldbrook Farm’s signature product, to remember their visit.
Before they packed up and went home, Pilcher promised the ones who return next year a discount if they bring a friend. The friend will also receive the discount.
The next day, Muszynska emailed that she had a group of 20 or 25 who’d like to come. “What do you think?” she asked.
They, too, would have a Polish moment and put aronia on the table.
(For more information, email Dr. Mildred Culp, communications director at Coldbrook Farm Inc., at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
by Mildred L. Culp
Coldbrook Farm, Inc.
1284 Main St.
Crete, IL 60417-2145
Photos by James M. Theuri