Minnesota Wild, an Interview with Jay Erckenbrack
by Kathleen Preece, natural resource freelance writer
Jay Erckenbrack's Minnesota Specialty Crops Incorporated is "wild"--wild blueberries, wild raspberries, wild high bush cranberries, and more.With this harvest from the wild, and under the brand name of Minnesota Wild, the company creates 80 different food products including jellies, salsas, syrups, salad dressings, and wines.
Erckenbrack, president of the company and originator of the Minnesota Wild food products concept, has built a near million dollar business out of the northern Aitkin County community of McGregor. The business is based on what he calls "selling nostalgia in a jar." That nostalgia is based on the bounty of Minnesota's woodland fruits and honeys.
Erckenbrack began his food business career in the wild rice industry. That native Minnesota product sparked his thinking as to what other native foods and product lines might have a market. His potential list was just "warming up" at 170 items, he claims.
Minnesota Speciality Crops was born in 1991. To gather the native crops for his products, Erckenbrack called upon contacts he had on the Red Lake and White Earth Indian Reservations. People of both reservations had the concept and management of wild rice harvest already in place; extending their harvest season through the collection of berries, saps, and fruits was a natural.
According to Erckenbrack there are about "500 people out there feeding the mosquitoes" for his business. His gathering extends beyond the state's borders to Saskatchewan, Iowa, and North Dakota.
It takes a lot of berries to produce Minnesota Wild's specialty products. During one peak year, the company purchased and used 43,000 pounds of chokecherries alone (20,000 to 25,000 would be an average year).
"Coming up with dreams is no problem; coming up with the money is," Erckenbrack admits. "You can't just walk into a bank and ask for a quarter million to buy 'wild fruit'--this is an inventory that is virtually worthless." While financing was initially a nightmare, a grant through the U.S. Forest Service and state of Minnesota gave the company the capital it needed to give the business a start and to establish credibility.
Minnesota Specialty Crops pays up front cash for the approximate 14 different fruits it buys from its harvesters. Prices vary: from 40 cents/lb. for plums and 90 cents/lb. for high bush cranberry and grapes, to $1/lb. for pincherries and $1.65/lb. for raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. The company purchases fruit from about the third week of June to the beginning of October.
From the start, Erckenbrack said he was astounded at "how much fruit is out there." Although the harvest can be plentiful, dealing with wild fruits can be a cyclic endeavor. A late frost can wipe out an entire year's supply of a particular berry or fruit.
Erckenbrack's company does not publish standards by which his harvesters need to adhere to. Rather, he asks them to bring fruit and berries in to his company in the "same condition they would be if you were making your own jam."
Erckenbrack encourages landowners to consider growing fruits and berries in shelterbelts and windbelts. He tells the story of a retired couple who gathered 1,800 pounds of chokeberries along a fenceline of their rural Minnesota farmstead. At 75 cents/lb., the once-a-year harvest netted the couple a substantial amount of cash.
After five years in the business, Erckenbrack said it was a "natural" to expand the product line to include wine. Fourteen different, honey-based wines are now produced, with half incorporating wild fruits. Honey is used because it provides the needed blending to counteract the tartness of the wild berries. Two basic approaches are used when blending Minnesota Wild wines. Some are 75 percent honey wine and 25 percent fruit; in others the formula is reversed, balancing sweetness and tartness.
The wine list of natural wild fruit honeywines include chokecherry, highbush cranberry, wild plum, wild grape, raspberry, black currant, pincherry, blueberry, and a charred honey (a dry, oaky white fermented in the classic French style in small oak barrels).
Seeds from the wine and other fruit-based products are "recycled" by handing them over to the Minnesota state nursery at Badoura where they are planted and nurtured--and serve as the source of many of the plants and trees citizens purchase for their planting efforts each year.
Pulp produced in the syrup and jelly making processes is picked up by local citizens and spread in the fields as a source of wildlife food.
Minnesota Wild products are marketed nationwide, with some products shipped outside the U.S. In Minnesota, Erckenbrack markets to about 200 gift shops, six stores in the Mall of America, and to some upscale grocery stores. The company produced gift packs for a while but found that the volumes were too large to comfortably handle and the profit margins too small to justify the labor that went into preparing that speciality package.
The company currently finds itself in trademark dispute with the National Hockey L team using Erckenbrack's trademark name of "Minnesota Wild." Hockey team aside, Erckenbrack continues to successfully sell authentic, northwoods nostalgia in jars and bottles.
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