Dry conditions on the Far North Coast, where 80 per cent of the Australian blueberry crop is grown, have conspired to place a huge amount of fruit on the market at once, pulling the price of a supermarket punnet down to just $2.
The apparently dramatic price plunge, off a high of $8 for the same thing back in March, is a situation of which everyone in the new industry is aware. Seasoned operators say they already know how to navigate these turbulent times, and have prepared for this year’s record 12,000 tonne harvest – up 20 per cent on last year.
As so many new hectares of blueberries come on-line the volume produced on the North Coast keeps increasing and until an export pathway is opened to China, the domestic market will remain awash with blueberries this time every year.
In the Clarence Valley emerging Golden Eagle Berry Farms, fronted by Woolgoolga-bred grower Harjap Singh Dosanjh and backed by Vancouver businessman Luigi Aquilano, is already producing 10,000 trays of fruit every week off just 33 hectares of production. Next year’s production could be five to 10 times greater. The next phase of the project, to develop 850ha at Waterview Heights west of Grafton, will bring a new level of competition to the industry.
The scale of the Clarence enterprise worries some growers, yet its arrival also stimulated new growth with small landholders taking the plunge after seeing the potential. The guy who dug the dam, for instance, went home and started his own venture.
“We don’t see this year’s low prices a major threat to the industry,” said Mr Dosanjh. “There will always be room for good growers.”
The company’s financial controller, Jurgen Clauss, who also holds a second masters degree in horticulture, said techniques like proper pruning and nutrition helped bring fruit on early or hold it back to meet a better market.
He conceded that the scale of a business with as much potential as Golden Eagle worked to keep business costs down, not something small growers can compete with – as Mr Dosanjh understands, having started in blueberries with just one acre, on loan.
Extensive infrastructure including dams and irrigation has galvanised the enterprise during this season, with plenty of autumn rain filling storage ahead of the current dry, which has seen less than 10mm since June.
Dry weather knocks around the blueberry plant, but the fruit can be delicious as sugar levels rise, leaving acidity behind.