Finding new potential for a

lost native berry Rich in nutrients, aronia is “the berry of the future”


KELOWNA—Two years ago, Jane and Michael Johnston traded life in White Rock for a farm in southeast Kelowna. She’s a registered nurse

who’d risen to be executive director of a chain of high- end seniors residences. He’s the former CEO of an engineering firm. Both were looking for a new business opportunity. What they found was an orchard established in 1953, and the foundation for a venture they call Avoca Farms & Vineyards. “This is a sector we didn’t

know anything about, but that’s good because you’re not locked into traditions and status quo. Everything we look at, we tear it down and figure out how we can do it better,” says Michael. Together, they’re

converting their 18-acre property into an aronia and garlic operation. They’re retaining five acres of table grapes – Coronation, Bath, Skookum and Einset – for good measure. Jane, whose Indigenous

roots trace back to the Tahltan in Telegraph Creek, first heard of aronia from a friend. It sounded unfamiliar but she soon realized she recognized the plant by another name: chokeberry. Although native to North America and used as an ornamental in landscaping, the edible variety had been lost here but is grown in Russia and Ukraine on a commercial scale for its high antioxidant content and nutritional value. “The First Nations people

here told early settlers from those places to eat it to combat colds with its high vitamin C content and high anti-viral benefit, and it worked. So, they took it home to their foreign countries and planted it where it’s used for eating, chutneys and wine, but it’s just been reintroduced back into North America,” says Jane. Containing zinc,

magnesium, iron and vitamins C, B and K, studies have linked aronia to improving immune function and insulin production, reducing symptoms related to stomach disorders, combating the growth of certain cancer cells, reducing blood pressure and also promoting weight loss. It has the highest antioxidant capacity of all fruits. “In Europe, they’re using

aronia after chemotherapy to help rebuild a person’s immune system,” says Jane, adding that in Korea it’s used for anti-aging properties and health benefits. The berries, which

resemble a tiny, deep-purple apple, can be eaten fresh but with their mouth-drying effect are better blended with other foods. Freezing them reduces the effect, leading the Johnstons to envision a market for a freeze-dried, more easily transportable powder. “We’ve already bought a

freeze-drier,” Michael says. Starting from scratch To bring aronia back to

Western Canada as a viable and marketable crop, Avoca Farms and Vineyards is


Jane and Michael Johnston have left the corporate world behind to work on growing and creating a market for aronia berries on their 18-acre farm in Kelowna. SUBMITTED PHOTO

producing aronia from cuttings and seeds. “The issue is that it’s new,

so you need the right cultivars and we’ve done a ton of research, including visiting the World Agricultural Expo in

You’ve tried the rest.

Now try the


California. We got our original plants from Oregon, touched base with Kansas City growers, been in touch with a company in Poland and bought seed from Ukraine,” says Michael. “Our four varieties are bred to

make bigger, juicier, tastier berries.”

They have 4,200 plants plus 20,000 seedlings. In 2016, they purchased about 1,200 plants

See ARONIA on next page o

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