The blueberry farmers growing for a smoother supply chain 

Published: March 2019 | By: Joanna Webber

Mountain Blue Farms, one of Australia's biggest blueberry producers, is using innovative measures to grow their export market with the help of the CRC.


A bird’s-eye view of Mountain Blue Farms’ blueberry nursery at Lindendale, North Coast NSW. Photography by: Gethin Coles.

IN 1975, while he was working at a Melbourne research centre, Ridley Bell, then in his 20s, brought some exotic fruit plants into Australia from the forests of North America.

He took the previously little-known fruit to Footscray Market where buyers quickly showed an interest in the dark, delicious berries. Ridley saw where his future lay and by the early 1980s, he had moved to the NSW Northern Rivers area to start a blueberry farm and nursery.

Today, Mountain Blue Farms supplies one million blueberry plants a year to customers overseas and grows more than 1,000 tonnes of blueberries annually for domestic and export markets. Along with the farming operation, it runs a genetics program, an extensive commercial nursery, and a successful marketing business. 

In its latest clever move, the enterprise has partnered with the Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).


Ridley Bell at Mountain Blue’s Lindendale farm, near Lismore. Source: Mountain Blue Farms 

Led by NSW Farmers and developed with Food Innovation Australia Ltd, the CRC is one of six that have been shortlisted for funding this year under the Commonwealth CRC Program. 
With 70-plus industry, government and research partners, and a potential budget of $185 million over a 10-year period, the CRC aims to develop the systems necessary for growers to remain profitable and sustainable in future decades. 

It would focus on helping growers and manufacturers in getting premium goods to market faster and more efficiently, design and develop regional food hubs, and support smart, next-generation indoor cropping.

For Mountain Blue Farms, the CRC could open doors to lucrative overseas markets – especially China – and support its migration to machine harvesting.

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Business underpinned by focus on blueberry genetics

The business runs two blueberry farming operations in northern NSW – at Lindendale and Tabulam – and another in the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland. A fourth is being established in India where planting is scheduled for June this year to target a growing Indian market. 


An aerial view of Lindendale; where blueberries are looked after from the genetic process right to harvesting off the mature blueberry trees.

All four of Ridley Bell’s children have a hand in the family-owned business, but it’s managing director Andrew Bell who is directly involved in the day-to-day running of things.

“We have a family meeting every Friday morning at Dad’s place,” Andrew says. “He cooks up a big breakfast for us all and we talk through issues, make decisions about the direction we want to go in, then go off and do it. That’s our version of a board meeting.”

The business is underpinned by its proprietary genetics program run by Ridley and his team at Lindendale. The granddad of the Australian blueberry industry, who turns 70 next year, is still as passionate as ever about breeding new and exciting varieties without genetic modification. 
 

The natural breeding techniques are a time-consuming process, but lead to superior results. Source: Mountain Blue Farms.

In 2008, he applied his wealth of knowledge to naturally cross two blueberry varieties. The result is a sweet, juicy, jumbo-sized blueberry he called Eureka, which is now Mountain Blue Farms’ flagship variety and a brand sold exclusively through Coles.

“Our breeding process relies on horticultural robotics, but bees still do the pollination on our farms. Dad selects the varieties he wants to cross. Those seeds are raised in the nursery, then we lay out huge plantings of the new seedlings that are all genetically different.”

“Every year, Dad does new crosses using natural breeding techniques in controlled environments replicating what a bee would do.”

The business is supported by a network of more than 30 farmers growing several Mountain Blue Farms varieties across NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. By 2020, growers from Tasmania and South Australia will also have come on board.


Eureka, Mountain Blue’s flagship variety which is sold in Coles around the country. Source: Mountain Blue Farms.

“Our primary goal has always been to bring a premium product to consumers 12 months of the year,” says Andrew.

Health benefits of blueberries lead to rapid expansion
 
During the 1990s, when Ridley was travelling to the US looking for blueberry varieties that would taste good as a fresh product, people would ask him, why do you care? At that time, blueberries were mainly used for making jam or baking muffins, cakes and pies. Growers were more interested in yield than plumpness, crunch and mouthfeel.

Still, Ridley believed demand for the fresh whole fruit would grow, and he was right. Today, blueberries are recognised as a superfood and a raft of studies claim they have many health benefits. 

Low in calories, high in fibre, and with vitamins C and K, manganese and many other important nutrients, blueberries are believed to have one of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit. Health-conscious consumers can’t get enough of them. According to the Australian Blueberry Growers’ Association, Australia produced 17,000 tonnes of blueberries for the 2017-18 financial year and 20,000 tonnes are forecast for 2018-19.
 

Blueberries growing in the research and development tunnel at Lyndendale. 

Production is rapidly expanding across all states, but it’s Coffs Harbour, once famous for its Big Banana, that’s now home to more than 80% of the nation’s blueberry industry.

Berries can be expensive because they are labour- intensive to pick. Mountain Blue Farms employs a core of between 60 and 70 staff. At harvest time that number swells to more than 1,200 pickers. Finding those seasonal workers is not always easy.

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“As we move into supply pressures, we are looking to mechanisation,” says Andrew. “Hand-harvesting results in a better-quality berry with a longer shelf life, but it’s a slower process and more expensive than machine picking. Both the machines and the varieties need to improve to bridge the gap in quality.”
 

A picker harvesting Eureka blueberries. Source: Mountain Blue Farms.

One of the aims of the CRC is to increase efficiency by automating labour-intensive processes and streamlining the supply chain from farm to table. A big focus of the Mountain Blue Farms’ breeding program is on finding varieties that can be machine harvested for the fresh market.

“There are a number of categories to consider,” says Andrew. “Ripe berries should shake off the bush easily and the berries need to ripen together in a shorter window. Machine harvesting needs a particular shaped bush as well, and you need a firm, round berry with good bloom that can handle the machine.”

Coffs Harbour airport critical in exporting local produce

A major goal of the Future Food Systems CRC is setting up regional food hubs. At Coffs Harbour, an international airport would be key to jetting local produce to Asia.


Coffs Harbour airport is shaping up to be a potential international export hub for NSW farmers. Source: Trevor Veale / NewsCorp.

NSW Farmers’ general manager – research and innovation David Eyre says: “Industry clusters deliver major synergies to participants, including access to shared infrastructure, a local ecosystem of specialised skills, shorter support chains, and supportive government policy.

“The vision for Coffs is to upgrade the airport to enable rapid freight to domestic and Asian markets either via Sydney, Wellcamp [Toowoomba] or Brisbane airports, or direct from Coffs.”

Mountain Blue has exported blueberries since the early 2000s. Markets include Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates but its sights are now set on China and Japan.

“The CRC would give us the relevant tools for smoother trade into China as access for Australian blueberries into the China market comes online in the next two to three years,” says blueberry farmer Andrew Bell.
 

The set-up at Lyndendale includes growing, harvesting and packaging, so it is ready for export.

Coffs Harbour Regional Airport manager Dennis Martin actively supports the CRC and has committed to long-term funding to develop the airport.

“The Coffs Harbour region is already a major exporter of blueberries as well as other fresh produce and is ideally placed to be a regional freight hub for domestic and international markets,” he says.
 
“We are keen to develop Coffs Harbour as an integrated freight hub for the North Coast – for the domestic market initially.”

“We already have the ability to handle up to Boeing 767-type aircraft. A longer-term vision to establish Coffs Harbour as an international freight hub is of great interest.”

David Eyre agrees. “Investment in innovative cold chain, quarantine and customers clearance services on site could turbo-charge export growth from the Coffs region,” he says.
 
“As international tourism grows, particularly from Asian nations, we expect to see more direct flights to regional destinations. Customers for premium foods are very concerned about provenance and the story of food. They like to visit the source.”
 
What is the CRC?

The Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program supports industry-led collaborations between industry, researchers and the community through research grants. It aims to:

  • Improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industries.
  • Foster high-quality research to solve industry-identified problems through collaborative research partnerships.
  • Encourage and facilitate small and medium enterprise participation in collaborative research.

The CRC Program offers support to industry, research and community through CRC grants for industry-led collaborative research between three and 10 years.

For more information, go to futurefoodsystems.com.au.

The benefits of the CRC 
 
According to the CSIRO, 88% of Australian food exports are raw commodities. David Eyre believes future competitive advantage in that area will flow from smart, value-added technologies, and focus on quality, supply-chain integrity and differentiation.


David Eyre, the General Manager of Research and Innovation for NSW Farmers, is a big supporter of the CRC project in Coffs Harbour.  Photo by: Nick Cubbin.

Provenance transparency is a massive global food trend and CRC partners such as Mountain Blue Farms, Perfection Fresh and BiteRiot!, are focused on goods with nutritional benefits that cater to this trend. David says studies by Food Innovation Australia suggest the global value of these trusted, health-related foods will be in the trillions within 15 years, with most new demand coming from Asia.

“Exporting fresh foods rapidly, and with full provenance traceability, demands sophisticated supply-chain infrastructure,” says David. “Specialised technology, smarter use of airfreight, and deep collaboration between value chain actors is essential.”

CRC partners Coffs Harbour City Council and the NSW Department of Primary Industries will work with local growers and manufacturers to develop regional brands and export supply capability in these high-value segments. Part of this will be scientifically verifying the special nutritional values of local varieties.

“Our primary aim is to create new industry, new jobs, attract new investment and enable additional export volume and value. To make solutions available to farmers and local manufacturers that without the CRC would be inaccessible,” says David.

“Future market edge depends on developing distinctive farm or regional brands. Value starts on the farm and growers should be better rewarded for their commitment to quality."

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