Production and consumption statistics in recent years clearly show that blueberries are more at home in their native North America than anywhere else in the world. However, the growing and selling of blueberries is fast becoming a significant commodity in Australia too, providing an increasing number of seasonal jobs.
Blueberries – late bloomers in Australia
Blueberries are a staple item in the shopping baskets of Americans and Canadians, and per-capita US consumption has tripled this century alone. However, their presence on Australian shopping lists is becoming more common as we grow more of our own.
Despite failed attempts in the 50s and 60s to introduce home-grown blueberries, Victoria’s efforts in the 70s were more successful, driven by a small group of passionate growers. In the early 80s the most prominent of these, Ridley Bell, moved to the warmer Northern Rivers region of NSW and set up a breeding program there to develop Australian-hardy plants. The industry has continued to evolve, and now in the 21st century we have seen a surge in both production and popularity for the delicious and healthy berry.
Around 90% of all Australian blueberries are now grown in NSW, and production is mainly in the north eastern corner of the State. Three districts dominate: Woolgoolga, just north of Coffs Harbour, has a large number of small family farms, plus the enormous Berry Exchange farm operated by the Costa group. Further north, the Clarence Valley has several large, new farms with even more planned. And the Richmond Valley also supports several smaller farms as well as Ridley Bell’s original property at Lindendale, which includes their still-running breeding program.
Where does Australia fit on the world blueberry scene?
Despite the huge increase in plantings and production across the last decade or so, Australia’s production pales in comparison to our friends on the North American continent, who currently provide over half the world’s supply. In 2018 the USA produced over 250,000 tonnes of blueberries and Canada around 164,000 tonnes, while last year Australia grew less than 20,000 tonnes. And while we are expanding from that low baseline, other producing nations are doing the same.
At this stage the colourful blue berry is grown in Australia mainly for domestic consumption, with some forays into export markets. The industry has big plans to continue expansion, which will mean the development of export markets is crucial as the local market is now fully serviced. As always, our southern hemisphere location provides some counter-seasonal export benefits against the big boys, but both Chile and Peru are well ahead of us as major exporters and are expanding too, so we don’t have that advantage to ourselves.
A labour intensive crop
One big factor that will always be a challenge in the Australian context is that blueberries for fresh consumption are picked by hand. Around half of North America’s fruit is for the frozen, pureed and concentrate markets, and therefore is harvested by machine. Australia’s production overheads, particularly labour, limits us at this stage to fruit sold as high value produce to the fresh market only.
Blueberry bushes are generally grown on low mounds and the bushes are usually less than two metres tall, so picking into small buckets strapped to the waist is not difficult. There are no ladders to climb, no need to carry heavy bags over the shoulders, and a lot of production is under tunnels or nets where exposure to the weather is minimised.
Regional Development Australia estimates that around 5,000 seasonal workers, mainly pickers, are required in Northern NSW alone, and visa holders make up a very large proportion of that workforce. The majority of farms in this region have the advantage of being on the backpacker trail from Sydney to the Queensland beaches. The presence of Byron Bay as a very prominent and popular youth tourism location is right in the heart of blueberry country.
Longer season – more labour options
As new, earlier-maturing varieties of berries are now in production in Northern NSW. With picking lasting as long as six months in the same region, then pruning starting immediately after harvest, there are many job opportunities for the backpackers and Australian workers alike.
Labour requirements are not stable and consistent over the season. The need to top-up the workforce at peak times and to divest of excess workers in the troughs, make the working holidaymaker cohort a flexible and quickly available pool of workers. And with physically undemanding work and fair piecework rates, even inexperienced backpackers can make good money with reasonable effort.
In the cool south as well
Although the warm regions of NSW dominate blueberry production, there are still significant plantings in the cooler parts of that state, and also in Victoria. But Tasmania appears to be the big mover with new large-scale developments supplementing smaller existing family operations, to continue to provide berries once the northern harvest is complete. For an industry that didn’t really exist in Tasmania until just over a decade ago, it has expanded in leaps and bounds since and growth is steadily continuing.
Costa’s Berry Exchange has already established a large growing operation near Penguin on the Tasmanian north coast, to complement their property just north of Coffs Harbour, and a new development from Perfection Fresh in the same region is recently in production. Blueberry operations in the cooler climate regions will only continue to increase.
Unity is strength
As all types of berry production increase in Australia, industry representation has become more unified. Blueberries have long been represented by the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, which currently has 230 grower members and represents 95% of production. But in 2019 they joined forces with strawberry, raspberry and blackberry growers to form Berries Australia. This gives them the benefits of sharing resources, providing higher levels of professional support, and a larger membership base to provide access to key people when lobbying for change. However each retains its own entity within the larger umbrella organisation.
So when the shopper in your household browses the fruit section of their favourite supermarket or specialist retailer, they are likely to find more and more Australian blueberries available. And once our consumption of 0.33kg per person per year (2016) starts to approach the North American statistics of 1.5kg (2018), only then will our Australian industry feel satisfied that they are a normal part of everyday healthy consumption in our country.