Brusting with beautiful berries

Blueberries from Mountain Blue

WORDS Susannah Hardy

Whether it’s because they’re considered nature’s superfood, provide an easy snack, or simply taste delicious, berries are enormously popular—and this popularity is growing—with producers expanding to meet demand.

According to Jonathan Eccles, General Manager of Raspberries And Blackberries Australia (RABA), the gross value of the wholesale production of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries together is over $800 million a year. ‘This now makes us the biggest fruit category,’ says Eccles. ‘We’ve taken over from apples and bananas.’

Raspberry delight

The Clark family of Westerway Raspberry Farm has been growing berries on Tasmania’s picturesque Tyenna River for 20 years. Predominantly a raspberry and blackcurrant farm, the family-run business produces over 100,000 kilograms of each fruit per annum, with a smaller amount of other berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and redcurrants.

Richard Clark still remembers, at aged 15, when his father sent him out to sell their first raspberries. ‘Dad gave me a summer project,’ says Clark. ‘To see if I could sell some berries fresh—one customer gave me a go and it grew from there.’

The Clark family grows an older variety of raspberry known as the Willamette, which is soft and delicious, perfect for juice and jam. As its shelf life is very short, it’s not suitable for extensive transportation so Westerway Farm only supplies fresh berries to the Tasmanian local market, where they are extremely popular.

The season is only from December to January, so Tasmanians flock to buy fresh raspberries for their Christmas table. As well as buying retail, people can also buy straight from the farm or pick their own. ‘We’ve found that in the last two or three years, our farm gate sales have doubled,’ says Clark. ‘We can get 200 to 300 cars in a day to the farm.’

Finding seasonal workers can be an issue, however. Raspberries must be handpicked and ‘it’s always difficult to find a lot of local pickers when we go from having 6 or 7 full time people all year to requiring 120 people in the summer,’ says Clark. While the family does mechanically harvest, this picks very ripe soft juicy fruit, ideal for manufacturing as opposed to fruit bought by consumers.

Not so stylish but crammed with as much goodness, if not more, is the blackcurrant—and Westerway Farm is the last commercial blackcurrant grower in Australia. Blackcurrants are less popular here as they require a much cooler climate and are more tart in flavour compared to other berries. Mostly used for their juice, Clark is pleased that some of their blackcurrants have made their way into Coles branded blackcurrant syrup, and hopes this will eventually lead to syrups with 100 per cent Australian grown blackcurrants.

The super blue

Thanks to various studies touting their many health benefits, blueberries have definitely become the latest go-to snack. With a high concentration of antioxidants and other nutrients, they are said to fight postnatal depression, defend against diabetes, look after your heart, boost brainpower, enhance vision and combat ageing. The list is lengthy and Australians can’t seem to get enough.

Blueberry producer, Ridley Bell of Mountain Blue is known as a world leader in blueberry variety development. In fact according to Jonathan Eccles of RABA, his varieties are grown all around the world. ‘Australia has some of the best blueberry varieties in the world because of him,’ he says.

Mountain Blue, a family run business, located in northern NSW, has been producing blueberries since 1978. After studying and working as a lawyer, Ridley’s son, Michael Clark returned to the business in 2016 as General Manager. In fact, his entire family works in the business. ‘We have a family meeting every Friday morning at dad’s place,’ says Bell. ‘He cooks breakfast and we talk about issues, the direction we’re going—it’s our equivalent of a board meeting.’

While the Bell family continues to develop and produce different types of blueberries, the Eureka is their flagship variety. ‘It’s one of a number of varieties that we have now, but it was the variety that kick-started our business,’ says Bell. Mountain Blue produces berries for the Australian market with a small percentage going overseas and also freezes and sells fruit to manufactures. Mountain Blue also has a popular commercial nursery, where growers can buy the varieties to grow themselves.

As with Richard Clark of Westerway, the biggest challenges, as with raspberries, is sourcing workers. ‘Blueberries are very labour intensive, all picked by hand so attracting labour in the numbers we need is difficult,’ says Bell.

At this stage, there is no way of mechanically harvesting the fruit, but Bell is hopeful this might change. ‘We’re working really hard through variety development to develop varieties that are machine harvestable for the fresh market,’ he says. ‘That’s certainly a big priority of ours.’

Mountain Blue continues to expand at a rapid rate. ‘In the early days of the blueberry industry a lot of blueberries were grown for things like pies and muffins whereas now with better tasting varieties there certainly becoming a snacking alternative,’ says Bell.

‘Through variety advancement, we’re seeing better shelf life and more crunch.’

To read the full story, grab a copy of Sprout Magazine Summer 2017 issue at your local stockists or online, posted directly to your door.

 

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