Blueberry gamble pays off with record yields

St George blueberry grower triples yields on last year


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GOOD PICKING: Richard Lomman, Black Knight Berries and Table Grapes, St George, with his blueberries currently being picked.

GOOD PICKING: Richard Lomman, Black Knight Berries and Table Grapes, St George, with his blueberries currently being picked.

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The seasonal outlook for some producers isn't looking promising due to dry conditions but at least some growers have a reason to smile.

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WHILE harsh dry conditions were affecting seasonal outlooks for Queensland farmers across most sectors, one south west small crops producer is having a record year.

Richard Lomman, Black Knight Table Grapes and Berries, St George, is currently picking blueberries on his 400 hectare property, Camelot, with his yield predictions three times more than last year. 

Two years ago and after battling price woes, Mr Lomman took a gamble and swapped half of his table grape vines to install mesh covered sheds to house 5000 bagged blueberry bushes.

Blueberries hadn’t been grown so far west as St George due to often challenging growing conditions and disease but it has had little to no affect on the Smart Berry varieties Mr Lomman grows.

In their first season, picking ‘teething problems’ including a shortage of pickers saw fruit go soft on the push meaning yields only reached about 1kg per bush.

But the gamble is well and truly paying off this year with five pickers working since the start of the new season in July and already yields are predicted to be between 3-5kg per bush. 

This year we have already gone past yields per bush of what we got all last year and we didn't finish last year until the end of November. - Richard Lomman, Black Knight Table Grapes and Berries, St George

“This year we have already gone past yields per bush of what we got all last year and we didn't finish last year until the end of November,” Mr Lomman said.

There are still 10,000 vines on Camelot with this year’s table grapes expected to produce an average yield of 10kg/vine.

Mr Lomman said production hadn’t been the problem with their table grapes but with Emerald growers able to supply a large quantity of the domestic supermarket demand months before the St George grapes entered the market, they struggled with prices.

PROTECTED: The blueberry bushes at Camelot, near St George, growing in a tunnel.

PROTECTED: The blueberry bushes at Camelot, near St George, growing in a tunnel.

“They are competing against product that has the first leg in the supermarket and if they have such a big yield the price is low and so that product is moved through fairly quickly so for a small grower trying to do a premium line or something it doesn't work,” he said.

“You only get one shot at grapes so if you have a really strong storm season it’s all over then and the way this weather is looking who knows.”

Not only is there stronger demand for blueberries from consumers but Mr Lomman saw them as an alternative cash flow option.

Next month he plans to begin trialling different pruning times so he can manipulate their fruiting period away from the bulk produce to avoid the problems he faces with his grapes. 

After just two years of growing blueberries, Mr Lomman is already looking at ways to get the best return on his product by changing the fruiting period through pruning. 

Mr Lomman said it was important that they found the right season.

“It would be nice to have our fruit at a different time to peak areas and we are still working on if we can do that or not,” he said.

“At the moment we are still in with everyone else and we are picking a few hundred kilos a week and the big boys are picking tonnes a week.

“It’s just all about pruning more than anything, it depends when you prune them. 

“If we were to prune them now we might get some fruit in February but we don’t know and if we prune them now we are throwing away a lot of fruit.” 

Currently the blueberries are being sold to Brisbane and at local produce stores in St George and Roma.

For more information visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/BlackKnightTableGrapes/ 

  • This story first appeared in the Queensland Country Life.
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