Berries fruitful in wine country
Two years ago, an oversupply of grapes meant growers had to pull out grape vines to curb production. It was a demoralising and heartbreaking time for the industry.
But a group of seven people, under the banner of the Mt Barker Blueberry Company, who all work together at West Cape Howe winery between Denmark and Albany, decided to find an alternative to replace the pulled vines.
It was a pleasant distraction, said viticulturalist Glen Harding, one of the seven.
With fertile soil and irrigation infrastructure in place, the group researched growing raspberries and goji berries before deciding on planting delicious blueberries.
The first step was to change the soil structure to be highly acidic, which suits blueberries.
To do this they dug pine needles, pine bark and elemental sulphur into the soil and ensured there were no leftover nitrates from grape production, which cause allergies for blueberries.
"We did plenty of research first and saw a potential in WA because there isn't a lot of production and it's very hard to find locally produced blueberries on supermarket shelves," Mr Harding said.
"A lot of the product on the shelves is from New Zealand or interstate and there is a big difference in taste between picking and having your product on the shelf the next day and having it shipped and landed two weeks later."
The fit with grape growing could not have been more perfect.
"We look after 600 hectares of grapevines and it flows really well - from pruning in winter to spring shoot thinning - into blueberry harvest and then into the harvest of grapes," Mr Harding said. "It gives a really nice continuity for our core labour group who live in Mt Barker."
There are about 30,000 bushes of two varieties - Brigitta and North Land High Cross - planted in two and four-hectare plots. The first plot was planted in September 2010, the second 12 months later.
"They are slightly different in flavour and the ripening window," Mr Harding said. "North Land High is slightly earlier than Brigitta which has bigger berries and is a bit more sugary."
When plants reach maturity, which can take six years, they yield two to three kilograms of fruit.
Last year one tonne of berries was harvested and this year the Mt Barker Blueberry Company is hoping tonnage will triple as the bushes grow. They hope that in six years they will pick 50 tonnes of blueberries.
"Last year was a trial run for production and the amount we produced didn't cover costs but it gave us an insight into how to manage the harvest and packaging," Mr Harding said. "We still have a lot to learn."
Blueberries have to be hand picked and packed to minimise bruising.
Mr Harding said the next step was to develop a distribution network and packaging.
"Our main aim is to produce a first-grade fresh product that we can deliver in 24 hours throughout the South West and Perth areas," he said.
"Hopefully, as yield increases over time, we can develop a secondary product for seconds but right now we really want to focus on premium fruit production.
"We hope to be around 30,000 to 40,000 punnets this year."
In between the rows of blueberries, a rye clover mix is grown to increase organic carbon in the soil.
Fungicide and insecticide are not used and while the group cannot claim that the fruit are grown organically, only a little fertiliser is used.
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