Entrepreneur grows aronia berries for granola bars
Fairfield resident Claude Nicholson waited until he retired to become an entrepreneur.
Nicholson, who is in his mid-70s, has embarked on a commercial venture in the past five years that is becoming increasingly popular in the state, and it involves aronia berries.
Their presence has made a comeback in the past few years. Nicholson has turned their growing popularity into a thriving business. He puts the berries in a granola bar which he sells at local farmers’ markets, grocery stores and other outlets. He even sold several thousand of his aronia granola bars during RAGBRAI.
In 2008, six years after retiring from Rockwell International Corp., the Kansas-native read an article about aronia berries and how they were once common east of the Mississippi River.
Early pioneers didn’t care for the bitter berries and made no effort to farm them. Nicholson asked Derek Smith at the Iowa State University Extension Office about the berries, and Smith told him the berries were coming back in style.
Nicholson has owned a farm near Fairfield since 1990 where he has grown a variety of organic fruits. After hearing Smith’s projection, he decided to ride the aronia wave and buy a few plants himself. The fruit farmer bought 64 his first year, which cost $2 per plant.
Luckily, Nicholson is a patient man because aronia shrubs do not mature for at least five years. Only small amounts of fruit are produced before then. In 2009, Nicholson dove head-first into aronias when he bought 1,200 of the plants. He now has about 1,400 plants on 2.25 acres, which he said is almost more than he can handle.
This year would mark five years since he first acquired the plants. The only problem is the plants suffered from a late frost last year and did not produce well. Nicholson said he expects to harvest 20 pounds of aronia berries per mature plant, and last year he harvested a grand total of 18.5 pounds. Nicholson said he expects his plants to become fully mature in two or three years, assuming the weather doesn’t stunt their growth.
In January, Nicholson was pondering what to do with his berries, given he would have so many in a short time. He got the idea to put the berries in a granola bar.
“I researched granola bars,” he said. “I tried different ingredients. I started with almonds and then tried dates, figs and apricots. Someone said I should be using healthy nuts, so I began using sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.”
Nicholson said he prepared three or four batches to take to the farmers’ market in the winter. He soon realized most of his granola customers wanted their bars made with apricot and fig.
“It gets to be a lot of work chopping up apricots,” he said. “They’re sticky and they’re hard to chop.”
Customers at the market made it clear to Nicholson he should pursue his granola bars further.
“I passed out samples and the people just went crazy,” he said. “I started making 60 to 80 bars per week.”
Nowadays, Nicholson is selling 150 bars every week at the market, grocery stores and food co-ops. He routinely sells out at the market.
Before long, it dawned on Nicholson the demand for his bars was greater than the rate at which he could supply them. That’s when Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development local food coordinator Jan Swinton stepped in.
Swinton helped Nicholson find a bakery that could produce the bars on an industrial scale. The two found a bakery in Sioux Center, five hours away in northwest Iowa.
The bakery experimented with a variety of recipes to make the bars sweeter or to make them harder by compressing them. With little time to spare, the bakery finally mastered the production process in early July and made 25,000 bars to sell for RAGBRAI.
Swinton and a few of her friends traveled with the riders every day of the week-long event. They sold 350 bars on the first day, and improved on their sales each day after that.
Many of their sales were to repeat customers who bought two or three granola bars every day. Some of those have become loyal customers who continue to buy Nicholson’s products on the Internet.
Selling to the RAGBRAI riders was a chore. Swinton and her friends had to have their spot picked out and their booth set up by 5 a.m. each day. In all, the group sold 5,000 on the trip, which was a little below their expectations.
Swinton said Nicholson is facing a problem many aronia growers are facing, which is a lack of local processing centers for their product. She said that is something she hopes to work on in the coming years.
Unlike last year, the weather has been very good to the berries this year. It has left Nicholson wondering what he’s going to do with all his berries.
“I’m drowning in berries,” he said.