Dresden berry business flourishes, expands

King visits Dresden farm
Posted:  Monday, August 4, 2014 - 5:45pm

Federal Express comes daily to Edie and Phil Johnston’s farmhouse on Dresden’s Route 27. Sometimes, two trucks come to pick up shipments.

Boxes pile up on the porch and can creep into the foyer of the 1863 home where Edie Johnston years ago developed a “nutraceutical” with the elderberries that grew, and still grow, in the yard.

Her son Geo Johnston sees that antioxidant-rich syrup and now several other products through the rest of the process that gets his mother’s creations onto store shelves. About 1,000 bottles are produced in a week. But production is about to step up, and move off-site. As early as this fall, Geo Johnston hopes to put Maine Medicinals, the manufacturing end of the business, into space leased in Richmond’s Ames building, a former mill across the Kennebec River from Swan Island.

With the move, he expects production to grow to 5,000 bottles a week, and the companies’ full-time payroll to grow from three to five employees. More growth could follow, but he and his mother emphasized that they have always been careful to avoid compromising quality for quantity.

Edie Johnston’s product research, under the sister company Eldertide, will continue at the farm.

The real growth in the American economy is coming from companies like the Johnstons’, adding one or two employees a year, U.S. Senator Angus King, I-Maine said.

King toured the farmhouse and grounds on August 4, when he and others visited to highlight the Johnstons’ success, Eldertide’s recent award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the help that government and other entities can give businesses through loans and other programs.

Commenting on the “fruits” the Johnstons are seeing of their labor on the berry business, King added, “Sometimes, I’m cleverer than I think.”

The former Maine governor attributed the business’ success to the elderberries, creativity and perseverance. “That’s sort of what Maine is all about,” he said.

Wiscasset Newspaper readers first met the mother-and-son business duo in 2009, after Edie Johnston developed the organic syrup aimed at supporting people’s immune systems. Elderberries for the products have come from the farm and up the road, on about another 10 acres bought in 2010 to grow more elderberries and other botanicals; some of the berries are now also coming from farms around Maine.

High-value specialty crops are the future of agriculture in Maine, Edie Johnston said.

In 2011, Eldertide won a $400,000 federal grant to develop the American Elderberry as a specialty crop. Maine's harsh, long winters favor elderberries and other antioxidant-rich berries, Edie Johnston has said.

The SBA named Eldertide as one of 25 winners of this year’s Tibbetts Award, named for Roland Tibbetts who helped start an SBA  program on innovative research.

Edie Johnston encouraged other Maine entrepreneurs to look into programs that can help their businesses grow.