Revolutionizing Invasive Autumn Berries Or Invasion Of The Autumn Berries

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What’s sweet, healthy and invasive? The autumn olive plant that bears autumn berries is your answer. Packed with vitamins and antioxidants, it has started to become used as a source for jams, sorbets and other food products as a way to control its spread. Dustin Kelly, a grad student at the University of Illinois and employee at Tiny Greens Organic Farm, has been working hard to make his idea spread as far and fast as this berry through his organization “Autumn Berry Inspired,” which promotes the use of autumn berries as a food source.

Before learning the benefits of the berry, Kelly assumed that it was poisonous and his first experience with the berry gave him no reason to believe it could be used as a food product. “I had taken a tiny taste in July when they were red,” Kelly said. “The taste was horrible, so I didn’t bother giving it another try for years, wondering if perhaps the plentiful fruit could be pressed into an oil for a fuel or a lubricant. Then one day in October I was going for a walk with some children, and they tried a few and said they loved the taste. I told them to stop because of my previous experience but they were right; they did taste good at that point. So I did more research, asked around and then learned they were completely non-toxic, highly nutritious, had been eaten in Asia for a long time and now were appreciated by many foraging-enthusiasts who often discuss the fruit and its uses on the web.”

 

Kelly hopes to open up the discussion about invasive species due to the new approaches that can be taken that might be more sustainable and pleasant. “I love how the Autumn Berry serves as an important Ecological function when it is planted on very barren soil,” Kelly said. “It forms a symbiotic relationship with Mycorrhiza that have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, enriching it from below while it drops plentiful leaves, branches and fruit on the ground to build it from above. Now when I observe the soil around Autumn Olives, it is teaming with life and there are a variety of edible fungus that seem to do well growing on the decomposing wood.”

Autumn Berry Inspired’s potential as a successful business is partly due to the health environmental benefits that such uses of the berry provide. The autumn berry is charged with lycopene, a well-known fighter of cancer and heart disease. In fact, it has 17 times the lycopene that tomatoes have. The Autumn Berry Jam, sold at the Common Ground Food Coop (Urbana, Ill.) in three flavors – original, low sugar and spicy – is placed next to the avocados since lycopene gets supercharged when you eat it with monounsaturated fats like those found in avocados. “Currently 85% of dietary lycopene comes from tomatoes,” Gina Biernacki, Marketing Manager, stated. “It amazes me that a natural, delicious fruit with such nutritional value is going unutilized just because of its perception as an invasive species.”

 

The team is taking many steps in producing collaborative plans with business and entrepreneurs. Autumn Berry Inspired has inspired uses of the berry such as a jam for The Cracked Mobile Sandwich Truck’s sandwiches, a puree for Daniela’s Little Bakery’s cupcakes and even a puree for The Wedge Tequila Bar’s first ever Autumn Berry Margarita. Among the first uses of autumn berries in food was the Big Grove Tavern’s Farm to Table dinner that featured an autumn berry sauce over pears for dessert.

“We’re essentially creating a new industry out of the Autumn Berry,” Biernacki said. “A struggle that I’m specifically facing as the Marketing Manager is the education and awareness of our products. We have a lot of work ahead of us to create and execute the necessary initiatives and marketing campaigns for our consumers to understand our products value.”

 

Kelly has attended a range of events since the founding of Autumn Berry Inspired in hopes of expanding his idea. Among those events was the Invasive Plant Task Force meeting held in Champaign on September 17. At another event, the Illinois Specialty Growers Association (ISGA) conference in Springfield that took place on January 12, Kelly sampled and sold Autumn Berry Jams in the trade show. One of its most recent displays was Common Ground Produce Department on February 14 for a jam tasting.

The Autumn Berry Inspired team has recorded all of its business experiences through a Facebook page. From when it had its first big sale in which it sold about 30 pounds of berries to Big Grove Tavern to when they were selected as a finalist for the Student Start-up Award in the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Innovation Celebration. The organization has also made it into the second round of the COZAD New Venture Competition, UIUC’s prize for sustainable student startups. Although Autumn Berry Inspired announced that it will be renting space at the Tiny Greens Organic Farm Facility in Urbana, it is looking for more ways to expand. “We attended the Inspire Business Startup Showcase in Chicago last month and will be pitching our business plan there this month to create relationships and compete for office space in Chicago,” Biernacki said. “I’m looking forward to creating channels and relationships in Chicago because it’s one of our next steps in market expansion.”

 

With the Farmers Markets coming up, it is the perfect opportunity for the team to share its passion and connect with more consumers. In order to attract more consumers, the team wants to create more products. “We are developing new products like Autumn Berry Wine, cream cheese and BBQ sauce,” Kelly said.

Among the many ways people can support Autumn Berry Inspired is through purchases of the products, joining its Facebook page, visiting the Autumn Berry Orchard and signing up to be a picker in the fall, and visit its Kickstarter page and contribute to its campaign to raise money to design and build the first mechanical Autumn Berry harvester. “We also want people to know that we are a new and small venture with a big bright future, and we’re looking for a few more passionate and talented people to join us in these early stages of our development,” Kelly said. “We are looking for everything from food scientists and product developers to permaculture enthusiasts and social media experts.” Whatever support the team receives, it is clear that there are only bright things in store for Autumn Berry Inspired’s future.

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