Winter 2009-2010

Edie & Geo Johnston
Edie Johnston and her son, Geo, have started Eldertide Pharm and Maine Medicinals in Dresden to develop medicinal products from organic elderberries and other antioxidant-rich berries that grow in Maine. Photo by Tina Fisher-Dark.

By Rebecca Goldfine

Edie Johnston is the kind of entrepreneur who doesn’t just focus on one idea. Instead, she’s cultivating several visions at once: a farm, a fruit revival, a medical breakthrough and a revitalized economy. But at the center of all Johnston’s plans lies the same object: a small, dark-purple elderberry.

Johnston, the owner and founder of Eldertide Pharm and Maine Medicinals in Dresden, is developing medicinal products from organic elderberries and other high-antioxidant berries. She believes elderberries could be the next fruit to dazzle the market, somewhat like açaí or pomegranate, two fruits so nutritious they are part of an emerging niche of healthful foods dubbed superfruits. These “superfruits” are being used to make many products, including herbal supplements and nutraceuticals, or plant-based medicines.

But while our grandparents might have enjoyed elderberry wine or elderflower cordial, today the fruit has a relatively low profile in this country. The reputation of elderberries for healing is also not widely known, although the plant has for centuries been used to treat a variety of ailments. This does not, however, deter Johnston, who, along with her 27-year-old son Geo, hopes to mix herbal traditions with current phytomedicinal research to create a popular new product.

Alliance Helps Develop a Business

“The nutraceutical industry is growing,” Johnston explains, her straight white hair cut in a trim frame around her small, alert face. “Partly because of demographics, aging baby boomers are looking more to plant-based medicines. And there’s greater interest in local sources, and with 46 million uninsured [in this country], people are looking to simpler ways of acquiring medicine.”

It is not uncommon, as Johnston talks about Eldertide Pharm, for her to weave several strands of ideas together like this. Her conversational style mimics her busy agenda. For while Johnston is developing berry-based medicines, she is also talking about creating a nutraceutical cluster in Maine to help the economy and offer a source of supplementary income to part-time berry growers.

With so much to accomplish, Edie and Geo Johnston are working nonstop. They’re developing a new line of medicinal products; analyzing antioxidant levels of berries with help from scientists; designing farming methods for a plant that has not traditionally been cultivated; trying to grow the elderberry market in Maine and beyond; persuading and training local growers to supply them with berries; and strengthening the North American Elderberry Alliance, which they helped found to bring together scientists, farmers and manufacturers of elderberry products. The Alliance had its second annual summit this October in Damariscotta and Dresden.

Geo Johnston, who has an architecture degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, has put his architecture career on pause to help his mother build the business, which is based currently in their old yellow farmhouse next to the Eastern River in Dresden. The house is elevated on a high bank, and in the warm season is surrounded by the delicate leaves of elderberries planted in orderly rows, each plant’s stem bearing the deep purple sheen that indicates the presence of powerful antioxidants.

A fruiting elderberry at Eldertide Pharm. Photo by Tina Fisher-Dark.

Plants Loving the Area

Edie Johnston moved to Dresden in 2002 from Portland, where she and her husband Phil together managed an architecture and interior design business. Phil is an architect; Edie has a background in education. She is originally from Vancouver, Washington. When the Johnstons moved into their roughly 150-year-old house in Dresden, Edie was immediately impressed by the number of native “healing plants” growing on her land, such as red and black raspberries and dogwood.

“That was the moment, when we moved here,” Johnston says. “I saw the woods and fields, and all around the river, I saw that they were surrounded by interesting native plants – wild elderberries being the most important. It sparked my interest in the antioxidant-rich plants that were loving this area.”

Johnston is as interested in those other native plants as she is in elderberries. She would like to develop medicines with the “Dresden Five,” which include elderberries, aronia (black chokeberry), black raspberries, cranberries and blueberries. All thrive locally and are laden with antioxidants.

Soon after settling in, Johnston planted a few more elderberries to see whether they would do well. They did. One of her original elderberry bushes stands at least 15 feet high, growing behind the house. It produces up to 20 pounds of berries every fall, sending out its white flowers in late June and July before the fruit ripens in September and October. These days it is joined by many more elderberries, some planted in south-facing rows, others planted in a Fibonacci spiral.

From these plants, Edie and Geo can make 100,000 8-ounce and 4-ounce jars of AnthoImmune, which is what they call their organic medicinal syrup made from elderberries, elderflowers, wild Maine blueberries and agave nectar. The bottles sell for between $17.95 and $27.95. They say the syrup is good for boosting the immune system and fighting colds and influenza through its “comprehensive array of bioactive constituents,” as the bottle label claims. The medicine can be taken regularly – a teaspoon a day – or used when people feel a cold coming on or feel run-down.

Old Traditions, New Science

Johnston’s 1.5 acres of cultivated elderberries contain 20 varieties and two species. She planted them as a testing lab of sorts. With the help of state and federal funding, she continues to work on a series of scientific studies.

So far, Johnston has received strong support from state and federal grant sources. In 2007, she received $12,500 from the Maine Technology Institute to look at cultivating elderberries under small and mid-sized intensive organic farming models. Later that year, her company received a second seed grant for the same amount to study the manufacturing process of elderberry nutraceuticals. A year later, Johnston received a third seed grant from MTI to investigate whether this form of specialty crop farming is economically viable in Maine. Finally, in 2009, she received phase one, or $80,000, of a $400,000 Small Business Innovation Research federal grant to do comparative analyses of elderberry varieties and juice blends. These studies will guide her as she creates berry nutraceuticals in the form of syrups, teas, powders, lozenges, tinctures and tablets.

“We’re looking at the berries from biochemical, horticulture and sensory angles,” Johnston says. With help from researchers at the University of Maine, she’s asking questions such as whether an elderberry’s flavor corresponds to a certain level of antioxidants, and whether horticultural habits and location attributes can affect a plant’s antioxidant levels. She’s also exploring the varieties that will make the most effective nutraceuticals.

Dr. Rodney Bushway, a University of Maine professor of food science and human nutrition, says for the past two years his department has been studying elderberries by testing their “oxygen radical absorption capacity” or ORAC, which determines how well the berries neutralize oxygen free radicals. “We’re doing tests to see how effective these antioxidants are in people,” Bushway says. “It’s a laboratory test based on chemistry to see how well these antioxidants might tie up free radicals so you don’t have problems in your body.”

Diseases associated with free radical damage include cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Research like Bushway’s suggests that antioxidants could slow aging and prevent disease by mopping up the free radicals that threaten to damage cell DNA. New science, too, shows that two specific flavonoids (5,7,30,40-tetra-O-methylquercetin and 5,7-dihydroxy-4-oxo-2-(3,4,5-trihydroxyphenyl)chroman-3-yl-3,4,5-trihydroxycyclohexanecarboxylate) in elderberry can bind with H1N1 virus particles and block the entry of the virus into host cells.

Bushway says the high levels of anthocyanins in the berries give them their rich black-purple color and attract birds. His lab is also looking at crossbreeding varieties to see whether the antioxidant level could be boosted. “We want to take it a lot further than making [elderberry] jam or wine,” he says.

Dr. John Schloss, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at University of New England’s pharmacy school, says UNE could easily form a relationship with Maine Medicinals. “In addition to drug therapy and traditional pharmaceuticals, we have an interest in any company doing nutraceuticals,” he says. UNE is equipped to “assist companies like Eldertide with appropriate, well-designed trials of their products, testing for medical benefits,” he says.

Growing the Berry and the Cluster

Johnston says her riverside elderberries in Dresden are thriving under ideal conditions. “Elderberries like to be near water, and they don’t like to have weeds competing for their attention,” she says. But being mostly pest and disease resistant, and very hardy, elderberries adapt to a variety of habitats.

They should be planted in rows 10 to 12 feet apart, and 4 feet from each other. The young plants, while tolerant of many locations, prefer fertile soil with a lot of moisture, but should not be planted in standing water. Geo says the plants drink voraciously.

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, says elderberries grow well in heavier soils, too. But few farmers in Maine are growing many of them, and he says the success of large-scale elderberry production is mostly unknown. “Most people’s experience with them is finding a wild plant here and there,” Libby says. “Birds like them a lot. That might be the limiting factor in how big you want to get: how you deal with bird pressure at the same time.”

Johnston, too, has only so much land, and it’s not uncommon for her to talk up neighbors to inquire whether they want to grow an acre or two of the berries. After all, if the business takes off, she says she’ll need a huge amount of berries each year. The plants take three years to fruit, and the Johnstons must start setting up a secure supply chain now.

Johnston bought her starter varieties from U.S. and Canadian nurseries. Once the elderberries had acclimated to Maine’s climate, she began propagating them at Burnt Meadow Nursery in Brownfield. During harvest season, she has farmhands, friends, family and neighbors cutting off whole berry clusters from the plants with hand clippers.

The berries promise a decent supplementary or retirement income if they are grown successfully, based on Johnston’s figures. Mature elderberry bushes can produce up to 20 pounds of berries. Johnston calculates that if you plant 750 bushes an acre, the yield would be roughly 15,000 pounds of berries. Current wholesale market prices range from $2 to $3.50 for a pound of frozen elderberries, she adds.

In fact, her business model relies on developing a ring of organic growers who will eventually form the foundation of Johnston’s envisioned nutraceutical cluster in Maine. Clusters refer to hubs of innovation, where many businesses and creative minds form a business culture that fosters development of new products. Silicon Valley is the most famous high-tech cluster. Route 128 in Massachusetts is another high-tech and biotechnology cluster.

“[The elderberry market] has huge potential here in this state,” Bushway says. “It is looking at the organic market which Maine is noted for. And agriculture needs a boost in the state besides potatoes and blueberries. It could help the economy, put farmers to work, add a value-added product in the state, create jobs and stimulate the economy.”

There’s hope, too, that Maine might have the ideal environment to grow this economic cluster. “When we compare elderberries from here [and] from away, Maine’s antioxidant levels are higher,” Johnston claims, which if true could be due to Maine’s soil and light and temperature fluctuations. “We don’t have hard scientific data, just anecdotal data. [But] we’re asking those questions.” She says to prove the veracity of these claims, she’ll need multi-year data.

Libby says, however, that the key to a nutraceutical cluster rooting in Maine is the inclusion of different berries. “I think it is the partnership of multiple fruits and multiple opportunities that will draw more farmers in,” Libby says. “Farmers are careful about risking their land on one crop they don’t have experience with. But if there are several different options, then it builds the base of farmers and builds the base of experience.”

The Johnstons say that if they are successful, Maine could one day be as well known for its berry superfruits as it is for its other famous attributes. And Geo has already come up with a new marketing logo for the state. Improvising on the Department of Agriculture’s famous motto, “get real. get Maine!” he adds a new twist: “get well. get Maine!” he says, with a small smile.

Eldertide is located at 555 Gardiner Rd., Dresden, ME 04342; 207-737-8717; [email protected].

About the author: Rebecca Goldfine is a journalist who grew up in Maine and has written for several newspapers in the state.

Second Farm in the Cluster

While reporting for this story, I invited my mother to come along to an interview with Edie and Geo Johnston. My mother, Tina Fisher-Dark, has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and wanted to learn more about the nutraceuticals the two were developing.

After the interview, Edie asked whether she could see my mother’s land, which is a few miles down the road from the Johnstons’ farm in Dresden. As soon as she and Geo took in the expanse of fields behind my mother’s house, Edie cried out, “This land sings to me!”

She asked whether my mother would like to grow berries for Maine Medicinals. My mother, who is retired, gave it some thought and then decided to invest in a half-acre of elderberries on her lower field. But her deal was that I do the labor. So the farm, The Berry Condition, will be the Johnstons’ first supplier, if its young elderberries thrive.

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