When 240 people turn up on a winter Friday afternoon for a horticultural field day – it’s a sure indication the crop in question is exciting interest.
BerryCo’s event in July attracted more people than expected, keen to visit two Bay of Plenty orchards growing new licenced varieties of high-producing, large-sized blueberries.
Among attendees were existing BerryCo growers, prospective growers, bankers, lawyers, accountants and rural supply companies.
Split into two groups, and travelling in five buses, the parties visited Hidden Valley Orchard near Pahoia, owned by Tony and Nicky Ponder and their son Michael, and a Katikati orchard owned by John, Cindy and Tracey Cotterell.
BerryCo general manager Vaughan Judkins says the aim of the field day was to share information about growing and marketing the licenced blueberries with existing grower members and those who were interested in becoming growers, plus industry support partners.
“Bankers, accountants and lawyers are being asked for advice from clients interested in growing under licence to BerryCo, so this was a chance for them to find out about the opportunity,” says Vaughan.
BerryCo is a new company, formed around three years ago as a joint venture between two Australasia fresh produce companies; Valley Fresh and Southern Produce, which brought their separate blueberry growers under the BerryCo umbrella.
In New Zealand, BerryCo growers are located from the top of the North Island through to the top of the South Island and grow a variety of blueberries, including about 60ha of the licenced fruit.
The company is seeking more orchardists to grow its blueberries under licence, but is being selective about finding just the right conditions in which to grow the plants, says Vaughan.
Hidden Valley Orchard
“We have varieties which will do well in many locations from Northland to the South Island. As we don’t want to set growers up to fail, we find out first, if necessary through soil, water and climate monitoring, and even by growing trial plants, if a location is suitable for our varieties.”
The 1.5ha of tunnel houses at Hidden Valley Orchard, north of Tauranga, represent a new focus for the Bay of Plenty fruit-growing Ponder family.
The tunnel houses protect 6000 blueberry plants and add diversity to the other crops, kiwifruit, avocados and forestry, grown on the 26ha property purchased in 2016.
“We could have paid $320,000 a hectare to buy a licence to grow Zespri’s G3 gold kiwifruit, but instead have spent around $400,000 to develop a blueberry orchard,” Tony told those taking part in the BerryCo field day visit in early-July.
Once the orchard is in full production, Tony expects it will return conservatively about $60,000 to $80,000 a year per hectare.
Plants in pots
As part of its development, the Ponders paid $12,000 for the licence to grow Mountain Blue Orchard’s varieties Southern Highbush under a licenced production model contracted to BerryCo Ltd, a company for which Tony is a director.
Tony says development of the Hidden Valley blueberry orchard from an original citrus and kiwifruit block began in May 2017 and included some contouring.
The tunnels are 8.5m wide and 110m in length, covering plants growing in 30L pots in a media of coco fibre, peat, pumice and ‘CAN’ bark fines. The planting density is equivalent to 4000 plants per hectare at 80cm in-row spacings, with three rows per tunnel to allow machinery access for harvesting, spraying and mowing. A grass strip, planted between the rows to reduce dust, is kept short by mowing.
A three-tank fertigation system housed in a new purpose-built structure, services four zones, supplying two litres per hour to each plant, via drippers. Water comes from a deep natural spring which, once it has undergone primary and UV filtration, fills two 30,000L holding tanks.
The orchard has the Mountain Blue Orchard cultivar Eureka planted in June 2017. This is a high-yielding evergreen bush which produces, from September to November, extra-large fruit on open clusters with an even balance of sugar and acid.
Pollinators called First Blush produce large sweet berries with Brix levels ranging from 13 to 16. Rabbit Eye cultivars Centra, Sky Blue and Velluto are also part of the orchard.
Bumblebees in small cardboard hives are placed inside the tunnels while honeybee hives are positioned at either end. To help the honey bees orientate themselves, Nicky Ponder has designed and painted different coloured signs with symbols – one even with the words: ‘Bees this way’ and directional arrows – and hung them at tunnel entrances.
Tony told visitors he should have pruned the young plants much harder than he did. “My advice to anyone starting out is to prune hard, to help encourage root growth. There is no concern that these plants won’t grow well, because they do.”
He also suggests creating gaps in the rows wide enough for machinery to pass through, avoiding the need to travel from one end of the tunnel house to the other before turning back.
Putting in support structures and training systems should also be done early, because it is easier with smaller plants, he says.
Independent agronomic consultant Stuart Doyle of AgVista Australia Pty Ltd told those at the field day that the harvest of blueberries is very different from other fruits.
“Unlike kiwifruit or avocados – you can’t leave fruit hanging when they are ripe. They have to be picked when they are ready, which is why there’s an advantage in growing them under tunnels because you can pick in the rain.”
He also warns that once picked, blueberries must be kept cool. “Every hour they experience over four degrees Celsius equates to one less day of shelf-life.”