PEACHESTER blueberry growers Dean and Helen Bryant, pictured above, have many repeat customers for their organic, biodynamic, big juicy blueberries. In fact, often there is less than a five-minute turnaround before customers are back for more!
The couple sell their much-in-demand produce, marketed as Brymac Blueberries, only to local restaurants and distributors and from their farm that is tucked away just south of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. At the end of their very long farm driveway is a sign that tells passersby that its blueberry season and, for a few dollars, they can buy a punnet of freshly picked, chilled blueberries. And so the Sunday drivers come, they buy one or two punnets, but by the end of that very long driveway back, the blueberries are almost gone. So, the driver turns around, drives up that long driveway again and buys a couple more punnets. Maybe these babies will make it home.
Locals, of course, are frequent visitors during the picking season that is October to March.
Helen Bryant laughs at the buying habits of her customers. She and her family are also push-overs for their big, juicy, ripe and tasty blueberries. The Bryant farm is one of the few BD blueberry farms in Australia. Nationally, the industry produces about $30 million worth of fruit every year – some 2,400 tonnes of blueberries. Half of these are sold fresh on the domestic market, while 30 per cent is exported to Asia and Europe, and 20 per cent of the fruit is processed, mainly as frozen product.
The Bryant’s bought their property some nine years ago, and by default, found some blueberry bushes growing in the overgrown paddock. Dean and Helen had swapped city life for an acreage environment and were very much in tune with the organic, permaculture, BD way of growing food. Fortunately, their acreage had no evidence of past heavy chemical cultivation, and so Dean began many months of research including internet studies on blueberry growing in the US and any book he could lay his hands on about sustainable farming. The couple were determined to take a biological approach to their farming methods and firstly organised a comprehensive soil test of their property from Sunshine Coast-based Nutri-Tech Solutions.
A prescription blend of nutrient additives, particularly humates, was added to the sandy loam soil. In time, one per cent organic matter made eight per cent compost. “Every spring and autumn the weeds are tilled and composted,’’ Dean said. “This compost is broken down and fed back to the blueberries and mulch. Hardwood chips are added to the mulch to raise the acidity levels, and this helps to suppress weeds.’’
And a comment that is so often heard from organic and BD growers: “When we get a lot of cobbler’s pegs, we know we have the best soil.’’ Cobbler’s Pegs take out loose nitrogen while the presence of dandelions means that the soil is low in calcium, and bluetops mean the soil has a high zinc content. Weeds and clovers are friends to the soil, and are indicators of the soil’s health – what is lacking or in too high a concentration.
The couple use the Nutri-Tech product Caltech to feed their blueberry bushes through the foliate spray. The elements of boron and silica have to be in place for the Caltech to work. They spray twice a year using BD501 after the fruit has set. The BD501 is beneficial in the ripening process, and increases photosynthesis and sugar levels in the fruit. The couple also use a variety of compost teas mixed with natural oat bran and mulled milk powder to develop a fungally-dominated compost and use BD420 to activate the prescription blend. The bacteria are also fed with molasses and fish. They also use BD500 and apply it to the plant with a natural fibre brush.
The farm boasts 1,700 blueberry trees planted over 6,000sqm of netted rows, and the couple plan to increase the plantings up to 3,500 trees. Their blueberry varieties include Sunshine Blue, Sierra, Powder Blue, Sharp Blues, Triff Blue, Beloxi and Rabbiteyes.
Blueberries love warm, sunny days and clear, cool nights and thrive in organically rich, well-drained soil. They grow best when planted in full sun and in acidic soil with a pH of 4.5-5.5, although Rabbiteyes can withstand a slightly higher pH. Blueberry plants have very shallow roots, so the roots have to be teased out before planting in a shallow hole. The roots don’t have hairs so they need fungi and nutrients for food uptake.
By mid-spring, the blueberry plants sprout small white, bell-shaped flowers. About two to three months later these little flowers will wither and the fruit will begin to develop in bunches at the end of the branches. At first, the berries will be green then pale pink, before becoming a pale blue. The berries are ready to pick when they become a deep dark blue. “We produced 30 tonnes of fruit last year and plan to increase that to 50 tonnes,’’ Dean said. “We average about 12 kilos a bush using our BD methods. If you used conventional methods you get just six to eight kilos a bush.’’
Bees play an important role in the pollination of the fruit. On the Bryant farm there are blue-banded bees that ‘just love the weeds’ and ‘rest on the grass stalks at night’. “We leave the weeds until they get to the flower stage. The bees love them. We also get the teddy-bear bee here, it’s an Australian native and is very big and furry. The blueberries are ‘buzz pollinated’. The bees grab hold of the flower and buzz – its an acoustic vibration that makes the flower release its pollen.’’
The plants are also irrigated with underground pressure-concentrated drippers that are activated manually using a pump connected to a rainwater tank and the Stanley River on the property’s boundary. Two lines of drippers are run down the 80m rows, with the nozzles 300mm apart. “We use zeolite filters after a rain event because we don’t want the run-off from surrounding farms,’’ Dean said. “But the plants need surprisingly little irrigation. About two or three times a year I have a look at the bushes and under the mulch – and just by looking at them they tell me what they want.
“The amount of moisture in the soil is amazing. I’ve increased the organic mulch matter by eight per cent. It may not rain for four months, but they don’t need water,’’ Dean said. “Blueberries like water but they don’t like wet feet. I do regular leaf samples but only one soil test a year. The first soil test was all over the place but now I get the same result every year, so I know I’m doing it right. The Brix levels are at 29.
“We have our four sheep in here as grass eaters. They are the happiest, healthiest sheep you have ever seen. They are worm and parasite free because they are eating the weeds and that keeps them healthy,’’ Dean said.
The couple have also placed fruit fly traps around the borders of the paddock, using Flybye and Wild May products. “The fruit flies are not a big problem, in fact, every year we are getting less and less fruit flies.’’
When it is picking season, the couple have a window of seven to 10 days to package and chill the blueberries. They pick in the cooler part of the day – morning and afternoon. And then the customers “come in droves’’.