Blueberry producers have been fortunate that the eagerly consuming public has maintained their desire as the supply ballooned over the past decade.
But savvy growers, like Natalie Bell and her husband Paul Lloyd, understand that a mature industry responds to an increasingly demanding consumer. Currently the market is calling for sweetness and flavour outside peak production months, which historically have been August through late October.
Taking advantage of her father Ridley’s life-long experience in blueberry genetic refinement Ms Bell with Mr Lloyd are this week planting six new varieties from the popular Eureka blueberry varieties, that is showing promising hopes of yielding sweet fruit during April to June, a time when reducing sunlight and warmth has historically produced fruit a bit more acidic in flavour.
A $400,000 interest free loan from market partner Coles, through their Nurture Fund (next round opens in August) has enabled Tallogum to plant parts of their current existing blueberry orchard to new early producing varieties. These new plants will be grown hydroponically in a coconut husk medium, in bags, under polyethylene skinned tunnels; not a cheap exercise.
Right now blueberries are selling for $96 per carton or about $8.50 a punnet. Compare that with the current peak season of August through October when prices fall close to production cost at $2.50/ punnet.
Ms Bell says there is potential for new growers to tap into the Eureka opportunities, Mountain Blue, Natalie’s parents’ farm, are keen to talk to interested parties.
But there is an equal danger that growers who jump into this market window by planting producing varieties that taste acidic will wreck the consumer experience and cause retraction for everyone’s demand.
“There is a six to eight week window after a consumer has a bad eating experience when they refuse to buy that product,” Ms Bell said. “In this case that could impact on the peak production time of year causing problems for every grower.”
Ms Bell said Mountain Blue was working with other grower groups in the industry, including releasing new varieties, as well as co-operating on agendas involving ethical farm practice and health and safety.
“It is critical we as an industry supply the consumer with something they want to eat,” she said.
Picking labour is not an issue with unskilled 417 visa holders allowed to work. In fact, the blueberry season provides a good opportunity for such visa holders to qualify for a second year.
To celebrate the influx of pickers brought to the Upper Clarence, Tabulam will host its inaugural blueberry festival this Saturday.