Hedge Balls: Iowa's Newest Cash Crop

Dec 9, 2015

Osage oranges, hedge apples, horse apples, monkey brains… these are synonymous for the fruit that falls from the hedge tree. If you don’t live in rural Iowa, you ­may have seen them in craft stores. They’re softball-sized and usually lime green. Sometimes they’re used for decorating. They look a bit like human brains, and folklore says that they keep spiders away if you bring them inside. But, the fruit is inedible, and most farmers consider them a pain. Doug Schock owns a 300-acre farm in southern Iowa near Bloomfield.

You tripped over them. Then they got mushy, and it was just another job – pick up the hedge apples around the barn lot. And you really didn’t want the cattle to eat them and choke on them,” he explains.

Todd Johnson holds a hedge apple that's been busted open.
Credit Lindsey Moon

Like many farmers, Schock’s got hundreds and hundreds of hedge trees on his property. They grow to be up to 60 feet tall and have thorny branches that’ll poke you if you get too close. Wearing a black baseball helmet and a pair of khaki Carhartt coveralls, he’s gathered at least seven tons of hedge apples so far this year. Todd Johnson is a chemist from Burlington, Iowa, and his company, Osage Health Care, is buying all the hedge apples it can source.

“This is sort of a family story of folklore meets science, so my great uncle Don Privo told us stories that they would cut open hedge apples and rub them on scrapes and that would heal the cuts. I’ve also done some reading that the Osage Indians thought the same properties were present,” Johnson says.  

When Johnson investigated his uncle’s story, he found research suggesting that the seeds of the hedge fruit may have some anti-inflammatory properties. He’s devised a way to extract the seeds and is pressing them to make a pricey cosmetic oil called Pomifera. It’s currently in vogue with make-up artists in New York City and selling for $85 per half-ounce.

Johnson is paying $180 a ton for the hedge balls. Because this fruit has long been considered useless, Gene Duis, who runs the local grain elevator, at first thought all this was a joke.

Corn is selling for around $120 per ton at his elevator, and by his math that means the locals are getting more money for the junk fruit that has traditionally been left in a ditch than they are getting for their corn crop and all the expense that goes into growing and harvesting it.

Johnson has been looking to buy 300 tons of hedge fruit this year, and if Pomifera oil keeps selling like it has, he says he’ll need 2,000 tons next fall, all for something that was left in the field to rot.