Have you ever tasted an autumn berry? If not, local entrepreneur Dustin Kelly is on a mission to make sure you do—and to change the way Americans think about invasive species at the same time.

Kelly is the founder of start-up business Autumn Berry Inspired. He harvests fruit from the many autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) trees on five acres of wilderness that are a remnant of the Big Grove forest in north Urbana, near the University’s Brownfield Woods property. He then turns those pounds of fruit into various tasty products—jams, puree, fruit leather, and more—and sells them. The autumn olive is considered an inva- sive species because of its tendency to quickly spread, and the plants in Kelly’s orchard were growing wild for years before he came to the conclusion that they had economic value. 

Last year, Kelly started selling his three flavors of Autumn Berry jam at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, and now sells additional products there as well. Big Grove Tavern has created menu items using his autumn berries, and the Blind Pig makes a flavored beer with them. Autumn Berry Inspired products are also available in Chicago at the Dill Pickle Food Co-op.

All this economic activity is part of a bigger picture, however. Kelly sees his business as part of a larger movement: controlling and managing invasive species through find- ing an economic motivation to do so. In the case of the autumn olive plant, this means eating the fruit. “We can’t beat it, so let’s eat it,” as Kelly puts it. Kelly wants to promote the philosophy of an alternative approach to invasive species along with the tastiness and health benefits of the fruit. “The movement needs a business, and the business needs a movement,” he said. It’s a bit of a yin and yang dynamic. 

Business, philosophy, and the autumn berry 

The autumn olive was brought over to the United States from Asia in the early 1900s. It has nitrogen-fixing roots, which help it to grow unassisted in soil where other plants fail. It was planted along hedgerows, used in reclaiming land cleared by strip mining, and in other ways. It was generally considered a useful plant until the last decades of the twentieth century, when it was noticed that the trees tended to quickly spread and flourish where they’re not wanted, despite efforts to control them. Farmers in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States have lost acreage to the trees and fight back with saws and herbicides. Land conservationists seeking to preserve natural areas and na- tive species do the same. 

Kelly is also trying to stop the spread of the autumn olive, although his approach is different: “I’m more interested in finding a middle ground and cohabiting with this species and others, rather than trying to defeat them outright in some kind of war.” He doesn’t think that the autumn olive could ever be completely eliminated in North America, and thinks that “instead, we should implement innovative land manage- ment techniques that rehabilitate habitats and increase sustainable food production.” Doing so, he believes, will preserve native species better than the current approach: “I definitely value native habitat, although native habitat is something that is hard to pin down, considering the drastic changes occurring on this continent over the last 600 years.”

Kelly explained that one of the metrics by which Autumn Berry Inspired measures its success is the number of autumn berries they keep from being eaten by birds. Birds love the autumn berries (which ripen in the fall, in case you couldn’t guess from the name) and spread the seeds. By harvesting autumn berries himself, Kelly is slowing down that spread:

There’s no obligation for us, or any landowner, to remove the trees from our prop- erties. What we want to do is voluntarily improve our site to reduce the number of berries that go to birds. The less berries go to birds, the more we are doing something beneficial for the environment.

There are other ways of doing this than simply picking the berries. For instance, he will chop a tall autumn olive tree to the ground, let it grow back to a manageable height, keep it pruned, put bird netting over the berries when they ripen in the fall, and finally harvest them himself. 

Kelly spoke of how tenacious the autumn olive is:

Seeing the success this species has had in this country—it’s immense. It is a powerful biological force, and if we fight it we’ll lose. But if we can learn to har- ness it, like a team of horses, it’ll take us places. I’ve seen places right here in Champaign County that contain hundreds of acres of established autumn olive trees. I’ve heard of places in Tennessee and I’ve seen places in Michigan, Indiana, and Virginia that are the same. In Wisconsin, on the side of hills where other things don’t grow, the birds bring them in and they thrive. Places that aren’t being utilized, they come right in. They can grow anywhere that has sunshine and that isn’t regularly mowed, grazed, or too wet.

The autumn berry has long been popular with hobbyists and berry pickers who turn it into jams, wines, etc. for casual consumption. As far as turning the autumn berries into commercial food products, Kelly said that, as far as he knows, no one else is doing what he is. He spoke of an individual in Michigan who has been harvesting the berries and then selling them to a jam maker, but said that there is no autumn berry industry as such, and that the benefits of the fruit are not being promoted to mainstream consumers. “We need to promote the concept,” Kelly said.

Kelly believes that others will come to realize that the autumn berry has real economic value, and then start harvesting and selling them on their own, which will help in the bigger picture of keeping berries from birds. Kelly doesn’t feel the need to become the autumn berry kingpin and force out competitors to control a vast market all by himself; rather, he’d like to see many entrepreneurs and farmers doing basically what he’s trying to do: help create economic growth, food security, and environmental benefit: “There are enough berries for everybody, especially the early adopters.”

Kelly sees shortcomings in the current “eradicate at all costs” approach to invasive species and views our culture and language as being parts of the problem:

People fight what they don’t understand—the exotic and foreign outsider. The very word "invasive" makes us think of a simple plant species as an insidious enemy, and that the only fit response is to try and fight back with blood, sweat, and chemical weapons, all shock-and-awe style. But I believe time will prove that creating industries in the style of Autumn Berry Inspired is a better answer to invasive species than war.

Kelly mentioned that while the small bones of the well-known invasive Asian carp make the fish undesirable as a fish fillet for many Americans, the fish could be pro- cessed and turned into frozen fish sticks or imitation crab, and that industry could help mitigate the harm the fish are doing to river ecosystems in America. The same idea applies to the introduced Burmese Python that is a big problem in the Everglades, which could be turned into valuable snake-leather shoes, purses, and so forth: 

We are an industrious people, and if there is a potential for profit, people will come out of the woodwork to utilize a resource and capitalize on an opportunity. That’s progress; that’s the American way; and that’s job creation for local economies. 

From Austin to Urbana

Kelly has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and came to Champaign- Urbana in 2004 from Austin, Texas, to live and volunteer at the Annanda Liina Yoga Center, which is on the property adjacent to Tiny Greens Organic Farm on High Cross Road in North Urbana. Anada Liina and Tiny Greens are independent endeavors, but are run by like-minded people and are affiliated.

Kelly now lives at the Green Island Eco-Village, which also neighbors the organic farm, in a house he and his wife built themselves three years ago, and has worked with Tiny Greens and Ananda Liina in a variety of projects over the years. Along the way, he earned a Masters at UIUC in teaching English as a Second Language. He said that he feels comfortable here in C-U: “I like big cities. I loved Austin and I love going to Chicago, but I love to come back here. It’s just an easier pace.”

The five acres where he now harvests autumn berries is basically wilderness in the Green Island community that no one was using. Kelly, an outdoor enthusiast, started cutting paths through the woods and spending time there without a clear goal in mind. For a while, he considered running a nature awareness and outdoors survival school on the land. Then, in 2011, he tasted the autumn berries, researched them, and realized that he could sell them:

I had noticed the autumn berries in the woods for years and even tried them once in the summer, but they weren’t any good because they were still unripe. But then some kids were here for a yoga retreat in about October—kids like ten to fifteen years old—and they were eating the fruit. I said, "No, don’t eat those; they’re not good at all. They may even be poisonous," and I made them stop.

But then I got interested and did some research and I quickly found out that they are very edible, totally non-toxic, and growing across the whole northeastern part of the United States. They’re growing in such plenitude that they’re considered invasive. That sounded like a crazy paradox to me—that this fruit grows so well, tastes so good, and also contains loads of Lycopene (an antioxidant nutrient that helps prevent cancer), and yet it is not being utilized and, in fact, is being fought against at great expense. That just wasn’t making sense. 

I realized it’s about culture—about what America is, how we eat and how we’ve grown over the centuries. Things are so slow to change in our diets unless they are really marketed and put in front of people. I’ve seen things change in the gro- cery stores over the last ten or fifteen years, with new fruits and nutrient-packed superfoods like goji berries being imported from abroad. And then there are also papaya, mango, avocado, cacao, acai, noni, maca powder, chia seeds, and pome- granates. But it seemed the only superfoods that we could grow locally were kale, wheat grass, and blueberries—and blueberries don’t even grow well in our central Illinois soil.

So, there I was, eating kale and juicing wheat grass from Tiny Greens Farm for sale at the Urbana Farmer’s Market and in Chicago at the Green City Market. But I found wheat grass juice pretty hard to sell because, even though people liked how it made them feel, it doesn’t really taste that great.

Then I thought about the autumn berry more and more. Here’s another super- food and it’s a fresh, sweet berry that tastes great! And it’s growing right here on our organic farm without any of our help: no irrigation, no weeding, and no fungicides, herbicides, or pesticides. I had read and intuitively knew that if a fruit comes from a wild plant, it must have more vitality and so it may be healthier for us to consume. These plants have been living natural life cycles for generations while dealing with the harsh elements and natural selection, so it made sense that they would be genetically stronger than carefully bred, hybridized plants.

If regular blueberries are good, but wild blueberries are better, then I knew this wild autumn berry was going to have a lot of health benefits and deliver a strong, unique taste. It would be a great addition to our diets. 

To gain entrepreneurial skills, Kelly began working on a Professional Science Masters at the University of Illinois in Agronomy and Crop Science. “First came the interest in nature, the wilderness, and the autumn berries,” he said, “Then I went back to the U of I to learn about business and also to make connections. I wanted to meet food scientists, horticulturists, engineers, and business students and professors, and I have.”

Looking ahead

Kelly is definitely a person who is looking ahead—both with how to use the autumn olive in particular and how to interact with nature in general:

If I’m successful in creating recognition across the country that this fruit and this brand are worthwhile, then people can sell their berries to me and my company, or to a processing center nearby. People whose land is full of autumn berries that previously had no value can go ahead and start a farm.

But people still shouldn’t plant autumn olives in places that don’t already have an established population of the trees. They will tend to spread, and our overall goal is still to reduce the number of berries that go to the birds.

As Kelly gave me a tour of the woods at the Eco-village where he harvests his berries, he pointed out different plants and talked about his ideas for finding economic value in what looked to me like just a ragged patch of wilderness. The abundant honeysuckle, for instance, he described as “the bamboo of the Midwest,” and said that he is sure there is more value in it than people realize yet.

Kelly spoke of one day turning his own wilderness orchard into a self-sustaining permaculture edible forest with goats, beehives, guineafowl, and chicken living among hazelnut, chestnut, and apple trees, with productive patches of mushrooms, currants, and grapes—a forest that would provide food for people and animals and birds.

In conclusion

I enjoyed hearing Kelly talk about his ideas and plans; hopefully, he’s onto something that will work out the way he wants. Also, the autumn berry jam I bought from him is just as tasty as advertised. 

 

Photos by Justine Bursoni.

This story was originally published in Bonfire, the print companion to Smile Politely. The Autumn/Winter 2013 edition was published and distributed around Champaign-Urbana at the end of August 2013. Over the next several months, we will publish the stories featured in Bonfire on Smile Politely.