Recently, Autumn Berry Inspired LLC, a client of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, achieved an important success. Their locally foraged and produced wild Autumn Berry Jam is now available at the Harvest Market grocery store in Champaign.
“Our jam is also sold at the Common Ground Food Coop and a few other places around Champaign-Urbana,” said Autumn Berry founder, Dustin Kelly. “But being on the shelves at Harvest Market is a big step for us. This will help us get our product and our message to an even broader audience.”
In 2011, Mr. Kelly realized the little red berries growing on the bushes near his home were delicious. A quick web search revealed that the bushes were autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and the fruit was nutritious and safe to eat. The USDA says the fruit is packed with antioxidants, especially lycopene.
Originally from Asia and intentionally introduced into America, the autumn olive was declared an invasive species in the 1980’s and had fallen out of favor. Once you learn to identify it, Mr. Kelly explains, you will spot it in parks and along highways and the fringes of farmlands throughout the Midwest and Northeastern US. “It’s everywhere,” he says.
Mr. Kelly felt it was a shame that nobody was utilizing this tree that was so prolific across North America. Instead, millions of dollars are spent on “fruitless efforts” to eradicate the species. He notes that, “If a fraction of that money were spent on harvesting what grows so effortlessly, we’d be taking the berries away from the birds that spread the seeds, and we’d have a fantastic local organic food source.”
“If enough people can get a taste of the autumn berry, it will become a popular food,” says Mr. Kelly. “With a quality brand and great products, Autumn Berry has the potential to be sold nationwide and used as an ingredient by chefs, wine and beer makers, and other food-makers across the country. As demand increases, we can continue to transform more of the thousands of acres where Autumn Berry bushes currently flourish. We would turn an ecological problem into a healthy food source that is drought and pest resistant and doesn’t require fertilizer or irrigation.”
Autumn Berry Inspired LLC was born in 2012 based on this idea of using a prolific pest for good. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly harvested berries from their land, made jam, and sold it at the local farmers market, and to other food-makers like Pandamonium Doughnuts and Big Grove Tavern. Before long, a local brew-pub, The Blind Pig, contacted them to buy Autumn Berries to make a tasty Autumn Berry Beer.
The Red Bicycle Ice Cream shop in Urbana recently introduced Autumn Berry Sorbet. Mr. Kelly is excited is excited to see how other enterprises uses the fruit he harvests. “Autumn Berry is an exciting opportunity for food artisans to create something new for their clientele, something they’ve probably never heard of or experienced,” says Kelly. “It’s not often a completely new ingredient becomes available. Especially a locally grown, wild foraged, antioxidant packed, invasive super-berry that actually tastes good!”
The taste is sweet and tart—somewhere between cranberry and pomegranate. And the price for these super-berries is not through the roof. Autumn Berry Jams retail around $6 for an 11 oz. jar and Autumn Berry Puree is available for around $4 /lb. Shipping is available.
Dustin has certainly blazed a new trail with Autumn Berry Inspired LLC. “I keep at it because my small business is an exciting and rewarding way to make a change in the world,” says Kelly, “But it can also be challenging being an entrepreneur. I’ve always been grateful for the great support I have found through the SBDC at the Champaign County EDC. The staff there is so informed, insightful, and well connected. I’ve come to them to look over financials, brainstorm leads, and to zero in on where to take my company next. Our meetings have always been – quite fruitful.”
Learn more about the company at http://www.autumnberryinspired.com/.