I used to write a monthly column in NZ Lifestyle Block magazine (it’s honestly the best magazine for those of us who love to keep chooks, brew cider, skin a rabbit (yikes!), bake bread, drench sheep… and dream of a better life on the land.
My column, Cash Crops, focused on crops for small-time farmers’ market stallholders (like me). This column is from the July 2010 issue and reveals my plants to convert our old horse arena into a formal garden that doubles as a pick-your-own berry farm.
(I should point out that, the day after I filed this column, the Hunk went down on bended knee and popped the question, so the berry farm went on hold until after our wedding in February. Then I got up the duff so I suspect it may still be on hold… but this is my long term plan.)
From frosty paddocks to frozen potholes and muddy cows to miserable chooks: there’s nothing like the bleak reality of a rural winter to make me feel nostalgic for the sweet, sun-ripened flavours of summer. I should be praising the virtues of sturdy, stoic brassicas this month, but I’m far too busy fantasising about berries to give much thought to Brussels sprouts or broccoli.
And I’m not just fantasising. I’ve decided to dig up our abandoned equestrian arena and plant a pick-your-own berry farm. It won’t be all posts and wires and practicality, either. I’ve designed a feminine berry farm that looks like a posh potager, with espaliered fruit trees as fences, low stone walls, a wildflower meadow to bring in the bees and a formal hedge of clipped hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) to banish the wind. But, as Rachel Hunter so eloquently declared, it won’t happen overnight, so in the intervening seasons I intend to sell my first crops of berries at the local farmers’ market.
Berries, I am reliably informed by fellow stallholders, are always popular. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries sell out as fast as you can pick them to pile them on a cream-topped pavlova. And if they don’t sell? Boil them up with sugar and you’re making money for jam. (Hence the name of this blog.)
There are pros and cons to a pick-your-own venture, as Wendy and Don Babe have discovered at Broadfield Berryfruit, just south of Christchuch. The Babes bought their 0.8ha blueberry orchard in 1992. They inherited 2000 bushes, which had only ever been pruned “by sheep and a big snow fall”, Wendy jokes, and yielded just 150kg in their first season.
That’s now up to an annual crop of 7 tonnes of antioxidant-rich spray-free berries. Most of those berries are picked by families who flock to the couple’s berry farm from New Year’s Day to the 1st of March to pick their own blueberries for $10/kg.
Wendy and Don sell fresh and frozen blueberries, supply cafes and restaurants and have also dabbled in exporting. When their three children were saving up for their tertiary fees, they let them each manage the berry farm for a season on a 50:50 profit share arrangement. Daughter Jessica quickly calculated that focusing solely on pick-your-own would be far more pleasurable (from a manager’s perspective) and profitable than fussing about with a team of pickers and packers. “She was right,” says Wendy. “We made twice as much.”
The Babes welcome one and all at their berry farm, except the birds. “We used to get so frustrated chasing birds and repairing holes in the netting, but eventually you learn to accept that you’re not going to be able to pick every berry.” Or get paid for every berry. The Babes
allow families with small children and don’t charge a minimum weight per person, though Wendy admits that sometimes she gets a little irked by customers who turn up at the counter with only a handful of berries to show for several hours in the orchard.
At Julian’s Berry Farm in Whakatane, Paul and Monica Julian provide their pick-your-own customers with a range of container sizes, priced at from $11-25. “Saves arguments at the till,” says Paul.
Paul’s parents started the berry farm in 1975 and it is now a one-stop berry shop, with an on-site café and ice creamery. The berry farm’s open from October to February and employs 80 staff at the peak of the season. Strawberries are Paul’s core crop – when I phoned, he was
halfway through planting 70,000 more plants – followed by blueberries and raspberries, though he’s got a “living museum” of harder-to-find berries too. “I’ve got a row (45 plants) of loganberries, a row of tayberries and a row of ‘Ranui’ berries – a New Zealand-bred hybrid
that’s a cross between a boysenberry and a blackberry. I keep them for interest’s sake really.”
I’m taking the opposite approach. I’ve decided to leave blueberries and strawberries to the large-scale commercial growers, who have the economies of scale required to pick, pack and market them cost-effectively. (In the week before Christmas last year, one chap was selling five
punnets of fresh strawberries for a fiver at my local farmers’ market. Great value for customers, but not so sweet for a small-time stallholder.)
The more obscure the berry, the better. I aim to sell tayberries (a blackberry/raspberry cross), loganberries, marionberries, green gooseberries and devilishly prickly Worcesterberries (a gooseberry/currant cross), as well as ‘Aspiring’ raspberries, (a dual
summer/autumn cropper), boysenberries and thornless hybrid-berries like ‘Berry Delight’ and ‘Thornless Jewel’, both from the Incredible Edibles range.
‘Berry Delight’ (‘Marahau’) produces large, dark red fruit, ripening just in time for Christmas, with an intense boysenberry/loganberry flavour. The plants have lanky, thornless canes that crop prolifically when trained along horizontal wires. In my previous city garden, I wove them through the planks of the picket fence along my front boundary. The only downside? The fruit’s a tad tart fresh, though it’s unbeatable cooked in apple and berry crumble. Incredible Edibles’ new hybrid ‘Thornless Jewel’, due for release in garden centres this November, is said to be similarly productive but significantly sweeter.
I grew up foraging for free wild blackberries in the days before local councils and weedbusting groups went to war against them, so I’ll also plant thornless ‘Black Satin’ and thorny ‘Karaka Black’. Blackberries are my all-time favourites so if they don’t sell, I’ll happily scoff the lot myself.
* For a list of local pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms, see this website.