Profoundly thoughtful, inquisitive, caring. These were the words that sprang to my mind as Dustin led me through the woods by his home, pointing out garlic mustard greens that are great for foraging, talking about the cover crop he seeded onto his gardens, and of course leading me to the main attraction, the abundant autumn olive shrubs that speckle the woods. One conversation with Dustin Kelly and it won’t take long to pick up on all of these traits, but perhaps Dustin’s most unique characteristic is that he has the rare ability to see the world from a fresh perspective. It’s that fresh perspective that brought about his budding business Autumn Berry Inspired. Always thinking outside the box, Dustin wild harvests berries from the exotic and invasive autumn olive shrub, both preventing its spread and providing a nutritious snack from the harvested berries. The plan is to “eat this aggressive species into submission,” he notes as he hands me an autumn berry fruit-leather strip dipped in chocolate. I take a bite and decide that if this is what it takes to eat a species into submission for environmental purposes, I’m happy to do my part. Find out more about Dustin, his mission, and his products below!
1. When did you start farming?
I began farming while working at an organic farm in Urbana, Illinois, that was primarily an indoor hydroponic sprout and microgreen farm that also grew vegetables outdoors for farmers markets in Urbana and Chicago. While enjoying the natural areas surrounding the gardens, I strove to learn about all the existing plants and creatures that live on that land, and that’s how I came to learn about the exotic shrub, the autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, and how a large population (about 5 acres) of this tree was growing there.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about your farm?
When I learned that the fruit of the autumn olive was edible and nutritious, I saw a great opportunity to feed people and engage my friends in the fun and exciting activity of picking wild fruit. Next, I learned the tree was considered invasive and a nuisance and I felt a great responsibility to help our farmland heal from what I perceived as an affliction. I became quite concerned about how this introduced species outcompetes with native species, alters landscapes, and can endanger delicate ecosystems. Yet the autumn olive invasion across the Midwest and North Eastern U.S. is so far advanced, and the cost of extermination was so high, I concluded that finding a truly sustainable solution would involve deriving economic value from this powerful biological force.
And so began my process of making “lemonade” from the “lemons” life had given me. Over the past four years, with help from my friends, family, and employees, I have built a company, Autumn Berry Inspired LLC, which has developed techniques to efficiently harvest, store, and sell large quantities of autumn berries and berry products. Meanwhile, we developed value-added food products to let people experience this new, delicious taste. We then take these products to farmers markets, stores, and conferences to promote widespread consumption of autumn berries, for the purposes of sustainability and food security, land restoration, and eating this aggressive species into submission.
3. Can you tell us a little bit about the sustainable farming practices that you use?
Because autumn olives grow effortlessly and are considered invasive, we do not plant new trees as a traditional orchard would do. Instead, we wild forage this abundant, tasty, and nutritious fruit from existing, established populations. This is a crop that doesn’t require irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides. In our harvest process, we cut down large fruiting branches and collect every berry we can, removing tens of thousands of seeds from the seed bank, and keeping birds from eating that fruit and dispersing the seeds to lands near and far.
4. Why is it important to you to use the particular sustainable practices you mentioned above?
Our practices create new farmland from invaded lands. They do this while providing an immediate return on investment of valuable wild fruit. In order to create pathways and access productive trees, we cut many autumn olives down to the ground. We also cut down every invasive honeysuckle bush that is in our way. We pile this vegetation in orderly stacks that serve as animal and bird habitat. After dismembering an autumn olive and removing its shady canopy, we replant the newly uncovered barren earth with native plant seeds and cover crops to quickly “re-green” desolate areas. In the clearings we create, we plant native and non-invasive perennial food crops like hazelnuts and ginseng. By coming back to manage these crops and harvest berries, year after year, we transform the land, tame the invasive exotics, and grow high value food crops in land that was previously considered worthless and hopeless by many people.
"I feel there are important social, spiritual, and political decisions we make with food: how it is produced, how we buy and sell it, and how we share it. Yet there is something simple and timeless about farming, working with these basic resources necessary for all life. I find farming is a way to have a voice for long-term sustainability, and a stake in the future."
5. Can you tell us about a favorite or meaningful moment that happened on your farm.
People often ask me about the moment when I realized autumn berries were edible. I remember it happened to me in October of 2010 when some friends and their children were visiting our farm, and we were out for a walk through the prairie and woods. The children were curious and kept eating these small, spotted, red berries, and I told them they should stop because I assumed the berries were toxic. Plus, I had tasted a few in August and found them astringent and repulsive. The children said they liked them and I tried one and agreed it wasn’t half bad, even pleasantly sweet and tart, but I was still skeptical. When I got the chance to do some research on the internet, I learned we had autumn olive, and there was a wide spectrum of opinion about the fruit, ranging from people who prized the fruit and its high levels of the antioxidant, lycopene, while other people personified it as an invader that destroyed ecosystems and had no redeeming quality. I saw truth in both extremes and came to view the situation as an ethnobotanical paradox: where Americans value exotic super-fruits like goji and acai and pay top dollar for them but tend not to with this particular super-berry that grows locally and uncontrollably. Over the coming months I visited many nearby state and county parks and forest preserves and found large populations of autumn olive. I learned that many of these parks were previously strip mines where government agencies and mining companies had planted the desolate, rocky terrains with autumn olive to stop erosion and restore the land. The parks I witnessed seemed like success stories, both diverse and beautiful, like the natural areas surrounding our farm. It seemed to me that in the fog of history, this one important player—the invited and successful autumn olive tree—was no longer welcome, and now the parks spend their meager public funds to constantly battle these shrubs that an earlier generation had planted. Meanwhile, park rangers give tours where they tell children that these trees are bad and don’t belong on our American soil. It was at this point that I knew that, whether or not I ever made any money selling these common, weedy berries, that this was an important story that people needed to hear, and, perhaps, I was the person to tell it. In doing so, I hope to inspire a solution to this global food paradox and a more sensible use of our local resources.
"It was at this point that I knew that, whether or not I ever made any money selling these common, weedy berries, that this was an important story that people needed to hear, and, perhaps, I was the person to tell it."
6. Do you have any upcoming special events or products that we should know about?
Everybody can look forward to the Autumn Berry 2016 Wild Harvest Season (September – November), and start planning how they can do their part for the environment to slow down this invasion by harvesting all the autumn berries they can in their local areas. As an added benefit, they will be filling their freezers with this delicious and nutritious wild fruit to eat throughout the year. They can also make the fruit they collect into their own preserves, beverages, and artisan treats to share with their friends, or even sell locally, adding new products to their farm’s offerings. We just ask that everybody, please remember to take care to consume or dispose of your seeds properly and not to plant any of these trees, for truly, there is already more than enough. We at Autumn Berry Inspired LLC are happy to share recipes, processing methods, and harvest techniques, and if people don’t have a chance to pick their own berries, they can feel free to purchase our products and help fund our efforts to transform landscapes and grow food in balance with nature.
7. What are the main ways we can find your products?