When I see blueberries in the supermarket or the fruit shop I’m torn. I know my kids love them, I know they’re good for them but I also see that they’re quite expensive. Well expensive in fruit terms but not really if I compare the price to say two take-away coffees, a slice of cake at my favourite cafe, a ride on a public bus, the price of electricity, the price of water, the price of petrol … you get the picture.
Then I interviewed Bundaberg blueberry farmer, James Philips, and I realised that no matter what the things are selling for I should support the industry so farmers can continue to supply these incredible, sweet, juicy fruits. James calls them sugar bombs and says they’re great with ice-cream or just on their own.
Read my Sunday Mail Ask a Farmer article about James and his blueberries. This is how he grows them.
Paddock to Plate
Seedlings: We get our seedlings from a supplier in Lismore. They truck them to us and we plant into soil beds.
Soil: Blueberries like sandy loam soil. They could grow in just about anything but experts say sandy loam is best. They like a pH of 5 to 6.5. We plant into raised beds to try and ensure they don’t get wet feet. They have a shallow root system and don’t like to be in water.
Planting: We are planting all year round. We have expanded to a neighbouring 12ha property and are just filling it up. If you plant closer to winter it will be a full year before you get your first crop. Plant in early summer and you will get your first flowering in six months.
Weather: Blueberries are traditionally a cool climate crop but they are responding well to the heat here. They grow vigorously with the heat but when it cools off they look better.
Covers: We have installed tunnels over the top of the crops, which are covered with clear plastic. This protects them from the rain because blueberries have a waxy bloom on the outside and if you pick in the rain that bloom gets marks on it. The bloom helps with flavour and ripening.
Taste: If fruit is picked when it is not quite ripe it can be sharp in flavour. That fruit ends up in frozen products and the farmer is paid less for it. Flavour is also related to the variety. We grow a variety called Opi and we’re also trailing other varieties. Once our farms are full we will have 60,000 blueberry plants.
Growing: It takes about six to eight weeks after flowering for the blueberries to be ripe and ready to pick.
Harvest: We harvest by hand because selection of the ripe fruit is the key. We mainly use backpacker labour for harvest, as well as some local staff. Last year we had a crew of 30 people, this year it will at least double.
Storage & selection: When buying blueberries look for a smooth, consistently round fruit that has a full bloom and is a deep, consistent blue. Keep them in the punnet and store in the crisper section of the fridge. The natural boom helps protect their freshness and retain moisture so only rinse lightly before use.