Blueberries in the blood
SUE and Chris Howard have been growing blueberries on their Leongatha North farm for 15 years and have been certified organic for 12.
Koorooman Berries comprises an acre planted with 750 plants producing around two tonnes of fruit per season.
The fruit is picked and packaged on site, and sold into Melbourne via the Footscray Fresh Fruit Market and at farmer’s markets around the region.
Mr Howard said this year’s season was about two weeks behind schedule due to cooler conditions experienced throughout summer.
“We usually pick the berries up to the start of March, but it does depend on the weather,” he said.
“Blueberry plants are thornless and the fruit is quite easy to pick. They do need to be harvested when they are ripe as they don’t ripen further after they are picked.”
Once planted, a blueberry plant takes around 18 months before it produces fruit suitable for harvest.
“Hopefully within five to seven years the plants will be at their maximum,” Mr Howard said.
“Ideally, the plants are grown where the wind can’t disturb them too much; they need an easterly aspect for maximum morning sun and good airflow between them.”
The Howards have three different varieties of blueberries growing at their farm.
“We have Brigitta and Bluecrop varieties, which were specifically grown for Australian conditions. They were initially propagated in the ’50s,” Mrs Howard said.
“We also grow Reka blueberries, which are a New Zealand variety. These berries ripen early, so are good for the pre Christmas market.”
Initially a venture designed to get Mrs Howard out of the office and into her own business, the blueberry crop is a full time job.
“I wanted to create a business for myself so that’s what I did,” she said.
The picking season for blueberries begins in early December and finished toward the end of February.
“We sell our fruit fresh and we also freeze fruit. They really are an excellent fruit for freezing and have a good reputation in that regard,” Mrs Howard said.
“There is always a fashionable fruit, but I think blueberries have held their own. People are beginning to realise how versatile they are and their many health benefits.”
According to the Howards, one of the best ways to enjoy their blueberries is fresh.
“We always have them with breakfast. I also have a really nice trifle recipe and we even add them to salads,” Mrs Howard said.
“There are so many different ways to enjoy them. You could even try a camembert cheese and blueberry pocket in a fillet of chicken.
“In the early days, I used to make a lot of jams and sauces as well. I even made a chilli and blueberry sauce, which proves their versatility.”
Mr Howard said farmer’s markets provide the best advertisement for a product.
“They certainly let you know if your product, price and presentation are right. The feedback from customers is invaluable,” he said.
Both Mr and Mrs Howard were heavily involved in the development of the Koonwarra Farmer’s Market.
“It was our second year of producing blueberries, which we just thought we would sell directly to Melbourne, but the farmer’s markets are increasing in popularity all the time,” Mr Howard said.
All of the Howard’s fruit is picked by hand, so they are often helped out by seasonal pickers, including Peter Collins and Joan McBurnie.
Peter and Joan are members of the organisation Willing Workers on Organic Farms and therefore call themselves WWOOFers.
They have spent the majority of the last three years travelling the country working on organic farms in return for meals and board.
“It is a very good way to travel. I would absolutely recommend it. It is a great lifestyle,” Joan said.
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