Fruits of the forest

Rebecca TurnerCountryman
FAR LEFT: Mark Warren has been growing blueberries in the Margaret River region for more than 30 years.
Camera IconFAR LEFT: Mark Warren has been growing blueberries in the Margaret River region for more than 30 years. Credit: Rebecca Turner

Nestled among karri and jarrah forest just south of Margaret River is Lorienblue, a beautiful farm where visitors can choose to pick their own berries.

Named after Lothlorien, the magical forest valley and home of the elves in JRR Tolkin’s classic, The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Grove property has been developed over the years to include a 4ha blueberry orchard, as well as pecan, chestnut and macadamia trees.

Owner Mark Warren bought the property in 1974 while working as a primary school teacher in Geraldton.

The 81ha featured untouched karri, jarrah and marri forest and two intersecting streams.

Mr Warren cleared areas of the valley to establish an orchard, using the timber to construct a home, but said most of the land remained virgin forest.

“The first plan was to plant a grove of walnut and chestnut trees, however, two years after planting 400 chestnut trees, around 90 per cent died due to dieback,” he said.

“The problem was identified by the Department of Agriculture and Food WA using leaf analysis as Phytophthora cinnamomi, sometimes referred to as ‘jarrah dieback’, a soil fungus that causes root rot in susceptible plants such as chestnuts and avocados.”

Blueberry season starts in January and lasts, on average, for 10 weeks.
Camera IconBlueberry season starts in January and lasts, on average, for 10 weeks.

The fungus, which was most likely introduced into Australia through European settlement, causes Phytophthora root rot and affects hundreds of thousands of hectares of native vegetation in Australia, especially in WA.

Mr Warren consulted with DAFWA about what productive food plants could be successfully grown in the area, and blueberries and pecans were suggested. They were both of North American origin and not susceptible to dieback.

With blueberries in mind, he visited New Zealand in 1983 to see how its fledgling industry was faring.

“I came home thinking that with blueberries, you either need to keep it small and have a tourism side to the business or go large scale. So I decided to go small scale,” he said.

Mr Warren selected an area of the valley that faced south-east to grow the berries, because of the cooler conditions and afternoon shade. The ground was prepared by ploughing and sulphur was added to the soil to lower the natural pH from 5.5 to 3.5. The slopes were then terraced.

“Blueberries like the same conditions as azaleas,” he said.

Mulching, an important part of establishment, was initially trialled using a mulching cloth, but his has since been replaced with woodchips and mulch from the bushes each year when they are pruned.

Growing blueberries was an emerging industry in Australia at that time, so Mr Warren had to look further afield than WA to buy a commercial number of plants.

In 1983, he bought 400 bare-rooted stock, including several Highbush varieties and one type of Rabbiteye, Woodard, a more temperate climate species, through Mountain Blue Blueberries in Victoria.

“They were transported by train, and unfortunately were unloaded somewhere on the way where they spent some time in the sun, unwatered on the station platform, before making it to Perth and then to the farm,” Mr Warren said.

Despite the difficult journey, they still had a 60 per cent strike rate, and Mr Warren had established his first blueberry patch by the end of 1983.

A fruitful harvest

After having varied success with these initial plantings, Mr Warren established a second patch of 600 bushes with a mixture of Rabbiteye varieties, including Tiff, Becky, Bright Blue and Woodard. These first two patches of Lorienblue’s blueberry orchard now produce in excess of 2000kg of berries a year.

Blueberries start producing fruit from three years of age, with each bush averaging about 3kg a year.

About 20 years ago, as more people started to seek out this unique fruit being grown locally, a ‘pick your own’ option was developed. Margaret River locals and tourists now visit the farm each year to pick their own high-quality and fresh blueberries straight from the bushes.

Mr Warren said he had also sold blueberries at the Margaret River Farmers Market and to local restaurants. This year, however, will be the first that he focuses solely on the ‘pick your own’ attraction.

Mr Warren said this method of harvesting blueberries worked better financially for both him and his customers, while also providing a great experience. “People have direct access to the freshest blueberries possible. That is the key to fresh fruit — it should be eaten on the day it is picked,” he said.

Blueberry picking season runs from January to March.

Mr Warren relies on ‘word of mouth’ and repeat customers, and advertises on a noticeboard in the Margaret River township to let people know when the berries are ready to be picked.

When visitors reach the blueberry shed on the farm, Mr Warren said they are required to sign a visitor’s book and a notice of their personal responsibility for their own safety before entering the orchard.

“There are now well over 600 regulars who come to pick blueberries each year,” he said. “Once visitors have finished picking, they come back to the blueberry shed where they weigh them and leave payment in the honour box. They are $18 a kilogram.”

Mr Warren said most visitors will pick between 2-3kg while in the orchard, with February usually the busiest month in the 10-week season. Fruit production varies each year with both the amount of chill in winter and rainfall in summer influencing fruit set and production.

Mr Warren said this year’s cool winter conditions were good, which meant a good fruit set. He said last year, the crop was lost to heavy rain in February, while the year before the flowering and fruit set was disadvantaged by an unusually warm winter.

Building the industry

Encouraging others to grow blueberries is something Mr Warren is passionate about, and he is selling and supplying bare-rooted plants for people to plant in winter.

“I have propagated 20,000 blueberry bushes from my best producing plants,” he said.

“These have all now been field planted from the nursery in a third patch of high-density blueberries, which is now in its third year.”

Mr Warren said this patch would provide strong and established bare-rooted plants to sell to other farmers, with those remaining in the ground going into production to help expand the volume of fruit produced annually.

He said while there were now a few blueberry producers in WA, the local industry had the potential to expand dramatically to meet demand for fresh product.

While blueberries require some periodic and seasonal maintenance and pruning for good production, they are a relatively easy fruit to grow. As long as the soil conditions are right, they can be grown in a variety of climates.

Mr Warren has adopted a natural approach on his farm, and while the property is not certified organic, he does not use any pesticides or herbicides. The bushes are pruned at the start of spring, when blueberry bushes “start waking up”, and again at the end of picking season.

A drip irrigation system is used throughout the orchard, with plants watered regularly from spring to autumn using dam water.

Natural fertilisers and mulch are also applied each year, with Mr Warren warning against using poultry manure because blueberries do not like it. He said course pine woodchips made the best mulch.

Demand for Australian and WA-grown fresh blueberries is growing, thanks to research pointing towards their benefits. As well as being packed with antioxidants and phytoflavinoids — compounds that protect the body from stress — blueberries are high in potassium and vitamin C.

Looking to the future, Mr Warren said he would like to see the WA blueberry industry grow with more producers coming onboard.

He said he hoped to see a WA blueberry growers co-operative formed and encouraged those interested in growing blueberries to contact him.

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