Wonder Berry

In addition to elderberry and elderflower syrups, Carmel Berry Company makes elderflower tea, elderberry preserves and elderberry balsamic vinegar.

Five years ago, when Carmel Berry Company founder Katie Reneker would approach farmers to gauge their interest in growing elderberries, it was hard to find much enthusiasm. “Oh, that’s interesting,” some would say, and the conversation ended there. Today, Reneker says, farmers are going out of their way to find her and learn more about cultivating this particular berry-bearing shrub.

It’s hard to pinpoint what factors are responsible for this shift. Elderberries are anything but new – cordials and syrups made with both the berry and flower have been popular in Europe for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Elderberry also grows natively in California, and research suggests native Californians used the plant for all kinds of purposes, from food to dyes to medicine.

But the profile of the elderberry has certainly changed in recent years, and Reneker thinks there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, people are seeking out natural health foods. Elderberries are antioxidant-rich, and therefore often thought of as an immune-boosting fruit. This interest in the health benefits of the berry, Reneker says, have only amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic. Secondly, Reneker adds, many farmers are looking to diversify what they grow, specifically with the introduction of a high-value crop. Elderberry fits the bill.

Now, when she finds herself talking to people about elderberry, “they know what it is,” Reneker says, “which is so exciting.”

Thanks in part to this change, Carmel Berry Company is riding a wave of elderberry popularity all the way to the shelves of Whole Foods Market. In mid-September, the company announced that its Elderberry Syrup and Elderflower Syrup will be available at certain Whole Foods stores in Northern California. The syrups can be found in the mixer section – to be used in cocktails, deserts, salad dressings and more.

Getting to this point was “a long process,” Reneker says. The small, Carmel Valley-based company first started talking with Whole Foods about three years ago, but quickly realized they’d have to figure out their sourcing in order to be a stable supplier for such a large retailer. Part of Carmel Berry Company’s philosophy is using only American-grown elderberries and elderflowers – but almost all of the fruit currently used in the United States is imported. Reneker was growing some of her own elderberries in Greenfield, but when she lost the use of that land she decided to switch gears and focus on helping other farmers begin or expand their elderberry operations.

“We really determined our growth based on how quickly we can build our farmer network,” Reneker says. “We knew we had to do it at the pace that worked with our mission.”

So Reneker had to convince more farmers to start growing elderberry. Over the past two years she’s hosted a number of workshops, including online workshops during the pandemic, that cover how and why to grow elderberries commercially. The increasing popularity of the shrub helped here too – the workshops regularly drew in hundreds of farmers, mostly from California and other West Coast states, but also from across the country. Carmel Berry Company also launched a small grant program to give seed capital to farmers interested in becoming part of the network – so far there are four farms involved in the program.

“We decided, let’s give a little bit of money and education and mentorship to some growers who are ready to take us on,” Reneker says. “So that’s just super rewarding.”

Now, the company has reached the point where selling in a store like Whole Foods, in addition to smaller local retailers, is possible. But Reneker isn’t done cultivating the cultivators.

“We definitely intend to continue doing [the grant and education program] and expand it because it’s great to see farmers be able to take on a new crop that’s really up and coming,” she says.

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