It promises to be a very ‘berry’ Christmas, as one of Tasmania’s favourite festive treats explodes in popularity.
Our world-class, sweet, juicy, berries are synonymous with a Tasmanian summer, and they are booming.
In fact, Tasmania’s berry industry is expanding so rapidly that it is now the state’s highest value fruit crop, recently leap-frogging over cherries to nab top spot.
The latest Tasmanian Agri-Food Scorecard, released in November, shows the industry is worth $80.3 million. A far cry from 2005, when it was valued at just over $7 million.
However, many are convinced the true worth of our ‘berry boom’ is far greater.
“While latest figures show Tasmania’s berry industry now tops $80 million a year, anecdotally it is probably worth upwards of $150 million when you take farmgate sales into account,” Fruit Growers Tasmania CEO, Stuart Burgess said.
He also pointed out that Tasmania’s berry industry has increased more than tenfold over the past decade.
“Growth has been extremely high, especially during the last five to six years, with another significant increase over this last financial year,” Burgess continued.
None of this is any surprise to Emma Sutherland.
Since their first harvest, Sutherland says business has “quadrupled”.
In 2012, Burlington Berries produced 280 tonnes of strawberries and 46 tonnes of raspberries. Last season that number jumped to 900 tonnes of strawberries, and 440 tonnes of raspberries.
That first year they also employed 83 seasonal pickers, but this season will need more than 500.
As Sutherland says: “I think we are just starting to see the massive opportunities with berries in Tasmania.”
The Tasmanian berry season runs from early November until late May. Strawberries account for 60 per cent of total production, followed by raspberries and blackberries, then blueberries which are undergoing a period of rapid expansion.
And, while business may be booming, there is still room for growth.
Sutherland looks to the more established British berry industry for inspiration, where consumers can be discerning about quality and provenance.
“You only have to look at the UK to see how far our berry industry can go,” Sutherland explains.
“If you go into a supermarket in the UK, you are able to see that this is a ‘Jubilee Berry’ grown, for instance, by ‘Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent’.
“You can also buy first, second, or third grade berries at different prices. And punnets of mixed berries are offered for sale. We don’t have that here in Australia.
“So, there is still so much more we can do, and that’s what is so exciting.”
Hillwood Berry Farm is another large producer that is enjoying the fruits of Tasmania’s berry bonanza.
And, according to Simon Dornauf, who helped establish this family business in the Tamar Valley eight years ago, annual turnover is now around $22 million.
“In Tasmania the berry category has exploded,” Dornauf says.
“It has grown exceedingly rapidly, and I would say it has been in the last six years that things have really ramped up.”
Across the world, berries have experienced phenomenal growth as the quest for healthy eating soars.
But there are other factors at play in Tasmania.
The 2010 arrival of Driscolls – the world’s largest berry marketer – significantly increased product demand, and both Hillwood and Burlington are amongst the growers who supply the US-based giant.
On top of that, Tasmanian growers recently boosted productivity by investing heavily in innovative practices such as ‘hydroponic crops’ and ‘polytunnels’.
Hillwood, for example, now grows all its berries up on tables, and safely protected in 350 tunnels.
“Especially for a place like Tasmania where the weather can be quite inconsistent, growing berries in tunnels allow us to have more security about our crops, because they can’t be damaged by rain or hail,” Dornauf explains.
“It also means we have a picking schedule that we can maintain. For instance, it rained quite heavily last night, but we are still out picking again this morning.”
There is no doubt that Tasmanian berries are booming, and summer’s bounty is shaping up as a beauty.
And, as Dornauf says: “While the cold spring might have meant that things have not gotten underway as quickly as anticipated, the crop is looking really promising for good berry supplies for Christmas.”
Image courtesy of Emma Sutherland
11 December 2018, Edition 201