Susan Smith and Emilia Rizzuto are betting big on a little berry
Living on a farm was Susan Smith’s dream. Little did she know that dream would come true as her second career — all because of one powerful little berry.
For years, Susan and her husband, Mike, owned a commercial and industrial HVAC business in the St. Louis area. After putting in the long hours required for operating their own business, they sold the company and retired.
As that chapter ended, a new one began. Enter Emilia Rizzuto. Through a mutual friend, the two women met. As their friendship grew, they traded stories about various medical challenges, from Emilia’s longtime battle with Crohn’s disease to Susan’s stress-related ailments.
During a harsh flu season, Emilia was desperate to find a more natural remedy for herself and young children. Her research led her to elderberries. Known for their immune-boosting qualities, elderberries are naturally high in essential nutrients, antioxidants and vitamins A, B6 and C.
In her home kitchen, Emilia pulled out a stockpot, boiled some elderberry juice and sprinkled in a few spices. She tasted and tweaked until she had the perfect elderberry elixir. She liked it, her two young children liked it and Emilia says it helped them stay healthy.
Emilia shared her homemade elixir with a few neighbors who enjoyed the product and felt its health qualities. Word of the product spread and soon Emilia was selling it out of the trunk of her car in the church parking lot — with 200 customers lined up. Something big was brewing.
After meeting Susan, the pair combined their business sense, nutritional focus and passion for the product to create All Things Elderberry in 2019. They hit the farmers market circuit to reach new customers.
“At first people assumed we were selling elderberry syrup for pancakes,” Susan says. “I told them, ‘No, this is an elixir — a medicinal product.’ ”
In the quest to buy the best elderberries, Susan and Emilia met Dave Buehler, owner of Elder Farm in Mount Vernon. He could see their drive and vision for their business and encouraged them to grow their own elderberries.
In March 2020, the Smiths along with Emilia and her husband, Scott, bought a 150-acre farm near Berger. The property featuring rolling hills was homesteaded in 1845 and previously owned by only one family.
“I knew it was the farm for me when I drove down the driveway,” says Susan, a member of Three Rivers Electric Cooperative. “When you go up to the top of the hills, you want to start singing ‘The Sound of Music.’ It is truly a healing place.”
On 5 acres, Susan, Emilia and their families, along with their farmer friend Dave, planted 9,200 elderberry plants in 2021. The patch includes five elderberry varieties in organized rows. The native-to-Missouri plant grows 6-feet tall and 4-feet wide. Its delicate white blooms appear in June and produce dark purple berries in August.
“Every part of the plant is medicinal,” Susan says. The flowers, fruit and leaves can be transformed into elixirs, salves and gummies to reduce pain and promote health.
“Elderberries have been embraced by influencers such as Martha Stewart and Dr. Oz,” says Patrick Byers, University of Missouri Extension horticulture field specialist. “A trend is to manage your health through your diet with natural products. Elderberries have a niche in that area.”
As such, Patrick has watched Missouri elderberry production explode from essentially no cultivated acres to north of 400 acres in the span of just two decades. “It has been interesting to see the growth of an industry where there wasn’t one,” he says. “It is an important crop in terms of the acres and income derived from it in Missouri.”
As Susan and Emilia are learning, elderberry production is manual. From planting to weeding to harvest, the success depends on their hands and hours in the field. As they master the production side of the business, they have fine-tuned the processing and retail sides.
“When we first started the business all our products had to be refrigerated,” Susan says. “Now the process we use essentially cans the elixir so it can have up to a two-year shelf life.”
They joined forces with the food scientists at MK Sauce Co. in St. Louis to make, bottle and package their products. In the early fall, Susan, Emilia and any other helpers will harvest their first major crop of elderberries. After destemming, cleaning and juicing the berries, they will freeze the juice, which goes to the team at MK Sauce Co.
The All Things Elderberry products are a simple blend of elderberry juice, honey and organic spices.
“Our claim to fame is you can’t find a product that is any cleaner,” Susan says. “We have no preservatives or additives, and every bottle will taste slightly different based on the profile of the elderberries and honey used.”
In the last three years, customers have bought more than 10,000 bottles of the All Things Elderberry elixir, in addition to their other products that include elderberry honey, gummies, jam and tea. Scaling to this level of production was not without its hiccups, Emilia says.
“We started out cooking this elixir in a pot on our stovetop,” she says. “We want to keep that same quality and consistency. We only use whole spices and local honey. Many times, people pushed us to use extracts or powders, but we said no because that would change the product. It was difficult along the way to grow without making compromises.”
Susan and Emilia are excited about their future, which they hope includes expanding their product lineup and more elderberry acres. They are big dreamers who stay focused on their mission of sharing the power of one little berry. “For me it’s not about the money, it’s about teaching people about this amazing plant,” Susan says.
Emilia agrees: “We’ve met incredible people along the way, and we have some customers who were buying out of the trunk of my car seven years ago who are still buying from us.”
For more information visit www.allthingselderberry.com. This is one of the nearly 500 Missouri companies that are part of the Buy Missouri initiative overseen by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. To find Missouri-made products or to enroll your business in the program visit www.BuyMissouri.net.