Blueberries go from bush to market in a day

09 January, 2017

It's peak harvest time at Blueberry County and the Waikato orchard is a hive of activity.

Hundreds of pickers are outside busily removing blueberries off the orchard's 270,000 trees for supermarket shelves across the country and Australia.

The bulk of the crop goes out in the Christmas and New Year period although the overall harvest window runs from December to mid-April. Co-ordinating the berries along the value chain from the trees, packhouse and to the supermarket is a huge challenge, general manager Warrick​ Macdonald says.

"We literally take it right through to the market. With dairying, it stops at the farmgate but for us, I'm selling it to the one before the end user."

Blueberry Country also earns money from allowing the public to pick their own berries. On busy days during the school holiday period, as many as 500 people will come to the main 120 hectare orchard at Ohaupo, south of Hamilton.

"It really gets busy. It's definitely a family activity, to be honest the kids think they are lolly trees," he says.

Blueberry Country also has a 40ha orchard in Ngatea on the Hauraki Plains and is developing another 80ha orchard in Southland. This orchard is a work in progress, with further development needed to create shelterbelts to protect the bushes.

All up, the business has 160ha planted in blueberries, making it the largest in the country. Blueberry Country is co-owned by Greg and Alison Furniss​, who hold the majority shareholding, and Warrick Macdonald, wife Kristen (nee Furniss) as well as Paul and Geoff Furniss are minority shareholders.

The growing operation began after Greg bought the land where the Ohaupo orchard now sits in the early 1980s. When the block came up for sale, he put a syndicate together of 25 'Queen Street farmers' to buy the land. At the time, each person, including Greg and Alison were minority shareholders. The orchard then grew when a neighbouring farmer sold up and then a large Australian blueberry company bought a 50 per cent shareholding in the business.

However, this company went broke after the 1987 sharemarket crash, allowing the Furniss family the chance to buy their shareholding and by 1990, they were outright owners.

Two years later, the Ngatea block was bought followed by the land in Southland some years later. Since then, the rest of the family also bought shareholdings in the business. 

Later, they also established BBC Technologies, a company based at Hamilton Airport with over 100 staff, which develops machines to sort out unripe, discoloured, or damaged fruit. The machines are made to order for blueberry growers in North America. They also grade the good fruit; and pack it into punnets ready for sale.

SIZE AND LONGEVITY THE KEY

There are 40-50 different blueberry varieties at Blueberry Country. This helps stagger the harvest window to make harvesting more manageable over the summer.

"From a business point of view, we really want it to be a good, long season to best utilise the plants and all of the equipment we have got and better staff management rather than it all coming at a bang," Macdonald says.

Each of the varieties they grow have subtle taste differences. "Some are what I call sassy and we have other varieties that are super sweet and even if they are still red and you eat it you think: 'Wow, that's a great tasting berry'.

"Others while they have still gone blue, they are still sour and you have to give them two to three more days to ripen."

The orchard still contains some of the original bushes planted by Greg and Alison. As long as they are properly pruned, they still produce good amounts of fruit.

Macdonald says fresh varieties require two things: A good size and at least a three-week shelf life. "If it's a really big, good looking berry, people will buy with their eyes," he says.

Some of the bushes produced smaller berries with great flavours, but were not as popular with consumers because of their size. Their top producing plants grew over 10 kilograms of berries per season, looking similar to full grape vines when they are ready for harvest. Their poorer producing bushes yielded about two kilograms of fruit.

These bushes are replaced as the orchard constantly looks to increase its production to grow its revenue and keep on top of rising labour costs and static blueberry prices over the past decade.

Prices shift throughout the season according to supply and demand. Early and late season fruit receive a premium while mid-season berries fetch a lower price because there is more supply.

Commercial sensitivities prevent Macdonald from revealing their exact tonnage of fruit produced every year, but it is in the order of "hundreds of tonnes."

Production costs are about 10-15 per cent of what the market pays per box. About 50 per cent of their costs are from running their packhouse while the rest are land costs. The biggest risk is a weather event wiping out their crop at a critical time and Blueberry Country losing a percentage of its production, he says.

"My opinion is that you have to be making a little bit more in those good years to make sure when you have those bad years, you're covered off."

Fresh blueberries provide the most profitable market and they are picked by hand. While a brix test is occasionally used to measure sugar levels on some varieties, tasting the berries is the quickest and easiest method to know if the fruit is ready.

"I tell the orchard manager and picking supervisor that the taste test is the most critical. Go in there and taste it. When it tastes good, it's ready, let's get it. It's not rocket science," Macdonald says.

Fruit picked in the morning is packed in the afternoon, freighted out that night to distribution centres where it is then shipped out onto supermarket shelves the following day in the early morning.

The berries are shipped all over the country in supermarkets owned by Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises. About 30 per cent of the crop is also exported to Australia either as fresh or frozen product. Fruit picked late in the afternoon is packed immediately the following day, otherwise it is packed and shipped on the same day, he says.

"It's between 24-48 hours from when its picked to when it hits the supermarket. We try to move as much as possible everything that's picked, within a 24 hour window."

About 50 per cent of the crop are varieties grown for the frozen market, used for jams, muffins and the food service industry. They are picked using machine harvesters, which start after Christmas.  Local market growth means they have to import frozen berries from the United States and Canada to meet demand.

WINTER CHILL GOOD FOR CROP

Winter chill is critical, with some varieties needing as much as 800-1000 hours in order to produce the buds that eventually form blueberry bunches.

Other varieties require less winter chill and grow well in Waikato, but would perform poorly in areas such as Southland. Spring frosts can be an issue and helicopters are sometimes used to prevent fruit damage, while fans on their Southland block provide frost protection.

There is no irrigation, but the orchard's 4-6 metre deep peat soils have excellent water holding capacity, acting like a sponge and soaking up the rainfall.

Macdonald tests these soils annually in October and uses the results as the base for any fertiliser applications. They also undertake leaf test analysis to determine the uptake of nutrients by plants.

Part of their planting programme is to take out the older, poorer producing machine harvested varieties and replace them with newer varieties for the fresh market. These plants are imported from the United States and grown in greenhouses on site until they reach a year old, and are then planted out into the orchard.

Once the plants are big enough, their roots tap into their water source. As a result, it usually took four to six weeks for mature plants to start to show the effects if there is a drought.

The off season is spent pruning, on weed control and monitoring any plants for diseases. The plants require little spraying for insect control and the bulk of the orchard is spray-free, he says.

ON-SITE CAFE CRITICAL

Blueberry Country has  80-90 staff operating the packhouse and 300 on the orchard picking during the seasonal peak. These numbers drop to 25 staff in the off season.

Many of the employees during the harvest peak are university students, with many of them returning the following year and quickly accelerating to management roles. Macdonald says they are critical in making sure the orchard runs smoothly over the height of the harvest. The rest of the staff are backpackers on working holiday visas.

Macdonald says they want to get the Southland orchard up to full production and look at ways of further adding value to the blueberries they grow.

An on-site cafe plays a critical role because it allows them to test new products by creating small batches and observing customer reaction. The products include fresh blueberry juice, drizzle, jams and chutneys. They provide the blueberries and the products are made off site.

"My thinking is that there is plenty of scope for us to increase our value added type of product," Macdonald says. "There is no reason why we couldn't potentially look at value added."

Alison Furniss believes they could successfully export the products into China if they chose to. "We could do it, if we wanted to put the initiative into it."

Macdonald says there are a lot of value-added initiatives they can explore to try and improve their profitability. "The price of blueberries really hasn't changed so we just have to get smarter and better at doing things so we are increasing our revenue faster than our costs increase."

The static trend of blueberry prices means Blueberry Country has to constantly find new ways to increase its revenue either through greater production or reducing costs, he says.

"We are working as hard as we can to increase our production and reduce our costs so we are still economic."

 

Gerald Piddock, Stuff

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