How elderberries spawned a new
business and nurtured a community
By Rosie Parker
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Standing on top of a rusted truck bed next to a firewood lot in Carmel Valley, Katie Reneker reaches high to harvest the offerings of a giant elderberry tree bursting with flowers and ripening berries. By harvesting the fruit before it falls onto the wood below, she is helping the lot owner by preventing his wood from being stained. And by allowing her to harvest his berries, the owner is helping Reneker launch her new business, Carmel Berry Co., a maker of elderberry syrups and elderflower cordials.
The venture, which Reneker runs from her home through the California Homemade Food Act, only got started earlier this year, but it is already demonstrating the communitybuilding power of making food and drink.
“The biggest theme of this project is my connection to the community,” Reneker says. “Through the elderberries, I have strengthened friendships and widened my circle.”
New friends have spotted elderberry trees and excitedly invited her into their yards and lives. Their children play together as the adults harvest and swap gardening tips or kombucha recipes. Having only lived in Carmel Valley for a few years, Reneker gushes that she now knows that her family has “finally found our home.”
Reneker first discovered the wonder of elderberries a few years ago while researching alternative flu remedies for her two young boys. Elderberries are high in antioxidants and vitamin C and are anti-inflammatory and antiviral.
They are full of flavonoids that help prevent cell damage, and research has shown that they can shorten a bout of flu to as little as three days. Elderflowers can be used to make poultices, antiseptics and soothing balms. After paying high prices for concentrated syrups from health food stores, Reneker decided to start playing with her own recipe.
Elderberry trees are native to the Central Coast, but often go unnoticed and unused. Once Reneker became aware of the overlooked plant growing all over Carmel Valley, she put the word out to friends and hung posters alerting others in town that she was looking for prime foraging locations.
“Foraging aligns with our family’s values of making as low a footprint as possible,” Reneker says.
For the business, she will supplement her supply of wild berries and flowers with a cultivated variety that she planted last year at her home. But ideally she hopes to be able to gather all her berries and flowers through foraging.
Reneker’s enterprise seems to have been welcomed by her community—especially those community members with whom she trades her delicious product for flowers and berries. (Fresh elderberries also can be a lot of work for althose who do try to use them—for example, they contain a compound that produces cyanide as it metabolizes, so they are toxic unless cooked.)
Reneker recently passed her inspection for a Class B Cottage Food license, enabling her to distribute her products in September. As of press time, the cordials and syrups were available directly through Reneker’s website and at outlets such as Zearly, a Carmel children’s store that will sell the syrup as a homemade soda mixer for kids. Carmel’s Da Giovanni was among the restaurants planning to use them in elderflower cocktails.
Beyond their medicinal properties, Reneker’s products offer a delicate yet refreshing and tart flavor that inspires many beverage concoctions.
Reneker started making elderberry syrup as a way to contribute to her family, and now, through Carmel Berry Co., she’s excited to see how she can contribute to her larger community.
Rosie Parker is a Santa Cruz-based writer, farmer and beer lover. A native New Englander, she misses snow days but is happy she can now grow lettuce in the winter.
Carmel Berry Co.
831.238.9973 • firstname.lastname@example.org