Tropical Blueberries Give Australian Consumers All-year-round Supply

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The following article appeared in the ABC Rural news Thursday, 7th July 2016.

Tropical blueberries give Australian consumers all-year-round supply

By Charlie McKillop

Australia’s largest horticultural company, the Costa Group, said consumers now had access to fresh blueberries all-year-round as a result of strategic, 30-year expansion across Australia.

Tropical blueberry production has become quite visible on the Atherton Tableland, about 80 kilometres inland from Cairns, with endless rows of white, igloo-shaped tunnels standing starkly among the usual crops of potatoes, peanuts, corn and sugar cane.

The Costa Group said it expected to pick about 600 tonnes of blueberries in its far north Queensland orchards between May and November, with plans to expand its tropical berry footprint from 42 to 75 hectares in the next 12 months. 

General Manager of the berry category for the Costa Group, Peter McPherson, said overcoming the challenges of growing blueberries in far north Queensland required a multi-million investment in genetic development and infrastructure.

“Obviously, it’s the heat conditions and the pest and disease issues that are prevalent with those conditions,” he said.

“Normally you talk about blueberries being high chill, so grown in the colder climates like Tasmania, or low to medium chill, which we normally grow around Coffs Harbour (in New South Wales), but this is virtually no chill.”

Mr McPherson said securing a supply of fresh blueberries 52-weeks-of-the-year had made it worthwhile.

The winter season has always been very high-priced and kept a lot of consumers from being able to put their hands in their pocket,” he said.

“Prices will come back down but also you’re seeing a huge increase in consumption per capita, consistent with other countries in the world.”

He said the demand and new production methods meant that it would be a profitable industry going forward.

A combination of a substrate, hydroponic growing system under purpose-built tunnels had mitigated the risks, including minimising but not eliminating the devastating consequences of frost and wind.

“The calibre of the steel and the way they’ve been built, they’re the most expensive tunnels we’ve ever put in the ground,” he said.

“So, in the rare occurrence and experiences we’ve had here, we’ve lost some plastic, had some tears, a few little misshapen tunnels etcetera but so far, fingers crossed, we’ve been happy.”

This harvest season, Costa Group’s normal workforce of 30 will swell to around 240 pickers consisting of Pacific Islanders employed under a government program as well as independent, seasonal workers and locals.

“We try to be fair, we pay by the book, do everything correctly and it’s about keeping a happy workforce and for the 30 years we’ve been in business, we’ve been able to do that. But we don’t need any backpacker tax.”

Fresh berry potential ‘unlimited’

In partnership with the world’s largest berry marketing company, Driscoll, Costa Group is now looking to expand its markets into China for the first time.

“Globally, I think the potential is unlimited. It continues to grow year on year — 15 per cent is the norm and look, I can’t see that changing.”

“There are better genetics in the pipeline, we’re spending a lot of money in research and development.

“We have a very good alliance with Driscolls and together we’re going after those (export) opportunities.”