Thu, Dec 23, 2021 10:55 AM

The sweet taste of December

Head of Tasman Bay Berries grower collective, Glen Holland.

Guest

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of a Nelson summer wouldn’t be the same without a country excursion to pick berries, but you’d better be quick.

Dwindling numbers of growers now offer the chance to pick-your-own, Tracy Neal reports

Heat, dust, queues of people with cartons, berries and a real-fruit ice cream from a vendor on the Waimea Plains: It’s Christmas berry time.

The traditional summer activity has long been a popular pastime in this fruit bowl of a region, but changing times have meant fewer choices for the public to head out and pick their own berries, and sample one, two or maybe three or four while filling the carton.

Steve Myers is what you might call a boutique berry grower, producing a fruit salad of sweet berries on his farmlet, Fairfield Gardens, a couple of kilometres south of Wakefield.

The small forest of strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries and blueberries takes up just over four hectares of the 11-hectare property.

It’s the last fruit stop for travellers heading south to the West Coast or Christchurch, and it seems that Fairfield berries have quite the reputation.

“Everyone who comes in – and we get people from all over the country, tells us we have the best-flavoured berries in the country. Maybe that’s just because they’ve never tasted proper berries before.”

Steve has been growing berries for about 40 years, simply because he loves being able to amble through the rows of ripe fruit on a summer day, sampling as he goes.

“I just love eating fruit. My wife calls me a ‘fruitaholic’. The berry season is the healthiest time of my life because I spend my whole day wandering around grazing, finding the best ones and thinking, ‘I must cultivate these ones’.”

Steve is such a connoisseur of berries; he’s even created his own cultivars from selected berry bushes which provided the most intense flavoured berries. He has gradually, over the past 40 years, developed fruit he says is better eating, and better suited to being packed in a punnet.

The farmlet used to supply Nelson Raspberry Marketing, but now relies mostly on gate sales and supplying two local outlets.

Raspberries have been grown in New Zealand since early European settlement. Records show that in the early 1900s more than 100 of the nation’s growers were in and around Nelson.

The global Depression of the 1930s saw production decline until it picked up pace again and recovered enough by 1970, when a virus, accidentally introduced with an imported cultivar, wiped out many vines.

Growers persevered, and by the 1980s raspberries ranked among New Zealand’s top five fresh exports, until a raspberry bud moth hit, and the bottom fell out of the export market to Australia. These days, New Zealand imports raspberries to help meet domestic demand.

Steve says he did once try a pick-your-own option at Fairfield Gardens, but only a couple of people turned up.

“It’s probably because of where we are. People like to just pop in and buy them. Having said that, pick-your-own might work now because Wakefield has grown so much.”

But that would mean Steve, who also works as a builder, in the months waiting for the berries to ripen, would have to expand production.

“I bought this bit of land as a retirement project and it turned into this small nightmare I created for growing berries.”

Eating them is of course, the reward for months of hard work - about as hard as asking him which is his favourite berry:

“Well, that’s difficult because I like them all, but...boysenberries probably. But now that I’ve said that I love strawberries and raspberries as well...and blueberries! It depends what day it is, some days the raspberries are better than the boysenberries.”

Steve says he’s the proof in the pudding that there are multiple health benefits from eating berries.

“Only by how much healthier I am during the berry season. But maybe that’s just fitness because I spend a hell a lot of my time running up and down the berry rows chasing pickers, picking up after them.”

Steve says he’s looking forward once more to the season when he eats hardly anything else, other than Christmas dinner.

A long-time Nelson grower of all things, from berries to nursery plants to dairy cows, Julian Raine, says while the region still leads the nation in the berry production stakes, there are only about four growers left, including two in Motueka, who welcome the public on-site to pick their own berries. He says aside from this, there are still some berry stalls around the region, but they too are now harder to find after changes to highway safety rules meant many had to go.

Julian was quick to say “no” when asked if there was much in it for growers offering a pick-your-own option.

“I don’t want to decry it because it’s always good to engage people with a crop, but there’s so much compliance, and monitoring – going back and checking what people have missed and having to pick it to keep the crop even.”

He says increasing numbers of rules and regulations have also made it harder for growers to allow the public on site, not to mention the shrinking amount of available land on which to grow the fruit, due to the creeping urban sprawl that is munching into the Waimea Plains.

"If you were to describe a perfect environment for growing boysenberries, the Nelson region is it. The berries just seem to love it here."

Berry Lands along the Appleby Highway is among the few remaining places where the public can pull in and pick berries. It’s owned by Waimea Plains grower family, the Connings, who also operate the Connings Food Market at Old Factory Corner.

Simon Conning says they’d like to think they could stay operating for as long as they like, but it’s not looking that way. The ever-creeping housing estates pose a threat to the viability of growing crops on land which might one day be zoned residential, which would mean an alteration to council rates and charges.

“There’ll be houses on our boundary by the end of next year.”

Simon says it’s possible they might have to shift the berry-growing to other blocks, but time will tell.

Growers say the plains’ rich soils and our temperate climate are the perfect ingredients for growing and sweetening rich red raspberries, shiny plump strawberries and most famously, deep purple boysenberries, which offer a little burst of California with each bite.

While some varieties are unique to this region, boysenberries are Californian, through and through. They were first introduced to New Zealand in the 1930s as a hybrid, most likely a cross between loganberries, raspberries and blackberries, grown in California in the 1920s.

Julian, who is director of the New Zealand Boysenberry Council, says Nelson, which is among the world’s biggest boysenberry producers, once grew about 5000 tonnes of the fruit each year. That has dropped to about 2000 tonnes a year.

“We’ve come off the heady heights, but New Zealand still grows the best boysenberries in the world.”

Boysenberry New Zealand (the cooperative) exports to 55 customers in 11 countries, but New Zealand competes with the US and Chile for global boysenberry markets.

Julian says the fresh crop is a very small part of the New Zealand industry. The fruit’s value beyond just great eating has grown in recent years, as recognition of its supreme dietary merits has increased.

Tasman Bay Berries is a privately-owned collective of local growers, which works with manufacturing companies to produce superfoods and supplements from the fruit. The collective provides premium quality boysenberries for the food and beverage sector locally and around the world.

The head of the grower collective, Glen Holland, took time out from a busy Friday on the farm, with fruit bursting out rapidly in the warm drizzle of November, to talk to us.

He’s been a berry grower on the Waimea Plains for just over 20 years, and has recently branched out into grapes, with the purchase this year of a vineyard.

“I came here from Taranaki where I grew up. I was an apple grower there, but I was drawn to the opportunities here.”

A property he managed on arrival included a berry farm, and the seed was sown.

“If you were to describe a perfect environment for growing boysenberries, the Nelson region is it. The berries just seem to love it here.”

He says the aim of Tasman Bay Berries is to be the preferred boysenberry grower and supplier in New Zealand, and to educate an unaware market on the benefits of this “superberry,” while also providing employment for the local community.

Glen says while they still hire pickers to help at harvest time, much of the fruit is now picked by a machine which delicately shakes the vines so the ripe fruit falls.

“There’s a science behind it. You have to shake them just hard enough, so the red ones don’t come off as well.”

The volume and quality of the crop comes down to the weather between flowering and harvest.  Surprisingly, a wet winter and “wet, muggy, humid spring” have not done as much damage as growers feared, and certainly not as damaging as hail last December.

“It’s been the wettest winter I’ve seen in a very long time but it doesn’t seem to have affected the berries which at the moment, look absolutely spectacular.

“We’ve got a very big crop. It’s looking really good for this summer.