NEW: Phyllis Hannan plans a worldwide business in elderberry products

Story & Photos by Jeff Noedel

Phyllis Hannan's retirement didn't last very long.  Having recently retired as head of one very successful business -- Laser Light -- she has already co-founded two more businesses. 

PHYLLIS HANNAN, IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT, AT HER NEW ELDERBERRY FARM

But whereas Laser Light uses cutting edge laser and computer technologies, her two new businesses -- Nature's Organic Haven LLC and Physicians' Natural Solutions LLC -- are by design as simple and as pure as they can possibly be. 

Hannan has a personal passion for holistic, healthy foods and organic farming.  She did a lot of homework, and she settled on the elderberry as the focus of her new career.

Hannan doesn't do anything half way.

Last year, in the first months of her elderberry passion, she had 2,500 elderberry plants put-in on a six-acre tract in her 90-acre farm in southern Montgomery County.  This spring, she had 5,000 more plants put in. Next year, she plans to expand the elderberry plantings from six acres to 15 or 16 acres total.  All of her plants are drip irrigated and weed-free.  But she staunchly refuses to allow pesticides.  Weeds are hand-pulled.  Bugs are fought with a soap solution, with pepper, or even sugar.  It's a completely organic farm.

"I'm going to sell products," Hannan told CNL at a party she hosted Tuesday night for elderberry experts from across the world who traveled to Columbia this week for professional meetings on elderberries.

"And if everything works out with a grant for processing, then we will be introducing some products first quarter of next year.  This is my next business," said Hannan.

When asked if she hopes to make a mark in the global elderberry marketplace, she answered simply, "Yes, I do."

Hannan said the market for elderberry products is good in China, Russia and Brazil, and a good U.S. market is developing now.

Hermann's Susan Haley understands Hannan's passion for holistic, organic wellness.  Haley, who was a guest Tuesday night at a party thrown by Hannan, said, "I'm truly intrigued by what she's doing here.  She truly is practicing what she preaches from a holistic point of view.  She’s living a lifestyle that's true to organic sensibilities, right down to the equipment which is certified organic.  There's no cross-contamination from outside equipment, including transportation.  That’s the attention to detail that is really impressing me.  From a spa professional point of view, I love her authenticity.  She really believes in taking care of herself naturally."

Dale Ridder, a well-known farmer from central Gasconade County (pictured right, wearing glasses), is a close friend and trusted companion to Hannan.  He is well-versed on her new agricultural venture.

Said Ridder, "I think there's enough things stacked in favor of [elderberries] becoming a bigger thing.  I  think the potential health benefits... the benefits of a natural-based product.  One of the things this symposium is doing at the University of Missouri is reporting on research.  There's some very outstanding research that's showing progress.  Is it the kind that will sway the FDA?  I don't know.  But in terms of natural alternatives in the field of health, I think that's where Phyllis' excitement comes from."

Elderberry believers have a near religious zeal for the somewhat bitter berry that many people look on as weeds.  While a relative handful tout the taste of elderberry products, the unmistakable appeal of elderberries is their potential curative powers.

But the F.D.A. and other regulatory bodies have not yet been won-over, and today, elderberry marketers are very careful to call their products "supplements," not foods, and certainly not medicines.

But after uttering the legally-necessary disclaimers, elderberry enthusiasts dive into the deep end of health claims -- or at least health hopes -- for their new favorite berry.

Ann Lenhardt (pictured left) owns Norm's Farms in North Carolina, with her husband Roger Lenhardt.  The Lenhardts came to Missouri this week to hear results of a $7 million study on five plants, including elderberries.

Ann Lenhardt told CNL, "I'm just thrilled to be here.  I came to the conference to hear the results of the study.  The human body is very complex.  Plants are very complex.  But all of the research is really promising.  They know that it's anti-viral in that it will cut the duration of a flu by four or five days -- it's far more effective than Tamiflu.  It's really good at preventing colds and sore throats because it prevents the cold virus from binding to your cells.  And they also say that it's got anti-cancer properties in studies with mice.  It's just a really cool plant"

The Lenhardts' company makes seven elderberry products:  a cough syrup which Ann says is "super delicious... a lot of people tell me it tastes like Christmas."  A jam, jelly, and three ready-to-drink juices blended with blackberries, lemonade, and peaches.

RIGHT:  A GUEST AT THE TUESDAY NIGHT PARTY TAKES PHOTOS OF HANNAN'S TOTALLY ORGANIC, DRIP-IRRIGATED ELDERBERRY FARM

Hermann's Gary Leabman is already a believer in health benefits of elderberries.  Leabman told CNL, "For a sore throat that has come back year after year, I started using Throat Coat, an elderberry product grown and processed in Hartsburg, Mo.  It is blended with honey.  I gargled with it, drank an ounce every few days, and I feel great.  It improved my sore throat quickly.  I was unhappy with the results of the 'Big Pharma' cough remedies."

Dennis Lubahn is a professor in biochemistry at the University of Missouri, and he is the head of the Elderberry Center at the respected school.  He spoke briefly at Tuesday night's soiree for elderberry lovers from all over the world... an event hosted by Hannan.

Lubahn spoke to the clamor for proof of elderberry powers, and he spoke about Hannan's party and of the Hermann agricultural area.

Lubahn joked, "As I’ve learned over the past couple days here, it's quite clear here.  As far as I know there is nothing that elderberry will not cure or treat.  (crowd laughter)  The evidence of that may not be that strong in some areas as others.  But
clearly there’s lots of interesting data about infections, about cancer, very fascinating rumors about cardiovascular disease, interesting things about diabetes.  Many, many exciting things have come out of this conference."

Lubahn continued, "I cannot imagine a more beautiful setting than Phyllis' back yard here than to be celebrating the wonders of elderberries. (crowd applause)  I guess we should thank God for a wonderful fantastic evening in the southern countryside overlooking a beautiful river valley that grows some of the best elderberries on Earth.  Thank you all for coming."

The Who's Who of the Elderberry World were at Phyllis Hannan's farm Tuesday night.  It felt like it should be called "The Elderberry Ball."

Fancy hors d'oeuvres of Cheese Crisps and Garnished Corn Bread were served on silver trays by tuxedoed help under a massive party tent.  A stream of sparkling jazz music rolled over the gentle hills of southern Montgomery County and spilled into the river bottoms from Circuit Judge John Berkemeyer and six other skilled musicians.  Second Creek B&B near Drake and Hermann's Mike Sloan teamed-up to serve-up a delicious whole hog dinner and sides that represented Missouri extremely well to an international delegation.  Mule-driven hay rides shuttled visitors from the tent to Hannan's elderberry tracts, and back.  Elderberry wines and Missouri beer flowed freely, and no one was in a hurry to leave.

Looking across the party which included 100 experts from Israel, Denmark, Germany, the Ukraine, Portugal, Hungary, Iran, Egypt,
the Czech Republic, Canada, and all over the U.S., from St. Louis to
Oregon to Maine, Dale Ridder -- the practical farmer from Bay, Mo. -- reflected on the rapidly-changing image the elderberry.

Said Ridder, "It grows wild all over the place.  A lot of folks would call it a weed.  Good friends of mine with it in their farm fields work very hard to get rid of it.  But I think that, done right, the elderberry has a lot of potential."

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