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Maintaining focus on blueberry viability

Maintaining focus on blueberry viability

Maintaining focus on blueberry viability

Dan Peach, from the Waikato district of Tamahere, is well known in the blueberry sector. A grower for around 25 years, he’s chaired the industry organisation, Blueberries New Zealand Inc., for the past 12 or so years.

Dan is stepping away from this role to refresh his focus on his own business, Oakberry Farms, which comprises 7.5 ha of blueberries, various lease blocks and a new packhouse finished last year despite the obvious challenges of building during the COVID pandemic. He also aims to spend more time with his wife, Jacqui, “having a life”.

For someone who didn’t deliberately set out to be a blueberry grower, Dan’s created a thriving career and never lost his desire to learn and improve. Dan’s parents grew persimmons alongside a farming business, and he says he’s always had an affinity with horticulture, although didn’t see himself as a grower. With a commerce degree, majoring in marketing and economics, plus a diploma in horticultural management from Lincoln, Dan was interviewed for a work experience job on a blueberry orchard. “Looking back,” Dan says, “I appreciate that opportunity and, other than a short spell in asparagus and raspberries, I’ve been in blueberries ever since.”

More than two decades ago, the blueberry sector was less evolved than it is now, being dominated by smaller scale growers. Dan explains: “Although blueberries have been an export industry for a long time, we’re still relatively young in our journey compared with kiwifruit and apples. The scale of these other sectors mean they have more support and systems for growers; there’s investment in support mechanisms like contractors for spraying, pruning and harvest. Some of these are missing in berryfruit. A lot of small growers have left, properties have been amalgamated and others, like me, have leased existing orchards to try and create better economies of scale.”

Dan has tried to maintain Oakberry's family business vibe as it grew. “Many staff have been with us a long time, from eight to 22 years. We’ve seen it as critical to build the abilities of our staff as we grew.”

The operation now has two on-farm Agronomy Managers, a Harvest Manager and a Packhouse Manager. Jacqui has the business admin side covered. Dan looks after the overall business management, as well as grower liaison and technical support. “Industry work has taken up a fair chunk of my time so I’m looking forward to freeing up time for extra grower support and some life balance as well. Like most growers, when you’re on the farm, it’s easy to work some pretty massive hours. I love it though.”

Dan’s focus on intensification aims to maximise production from whatever area of land and number of plants they have. He’s also worked hard to extend the harvest season, so the Oakberry team now harvests 12 months a year. This milestone has been achieved by increasing the types and varieties of blueberry bush in production, growing some under cover and, more recently, growing some hydroponically in substrate under cover.

“We’ve been extending the shoulders of the harvest season for some time, primarily for greater work availability for core staff but making money is obviously still part of it. Through our connection to Driscoll’s, we’ve been able to have access to American varieties to extend harvest.”

Planning for the new Oakberry packhouse started two and a half years ago with Dan realising that increased housing around their original packhouse would continue to impact the operation. While happy with the finished facility, Dan says it was challenging getting the packhouse built in a timely manner with changing costs given Covid’s impact.

“We pack for around 25 other growers and will pack over 600 tonnes this season. Our Packhouse Manager also looks after sales to a range of destinations with Driscoll’s the major outlet for both export and domestic market fruit. We provide agronomy support for our growers and want to help them grow their business, to improve quality and production, and invest in their orchards. Our mantra is ‘together we grow’.”

Dan doesn’t take labour availability for granted and appreciates the strong support of core staff. “Labour issues are well documented across many industries and we’re not immune.
Our staff are all New Zealanders but with limited RSE and working holiday visas, there’s more demand from every hort sector for Kiwi workers.”

Field days provide learning opportunities for Oakberry staff and growers, and Fruitfed Supplies Technical Horticultural Representative Grant Robinson is another who helps share knowledge into and out of the Oakberry operation. “He bounces ideas around with me and our team regarding chemistry and other news, as well as discussing options and sourcing products like netting, weed mat, foil and so forth.”

Thinking of recent investment around the country, Dan agrees blueberries can successfully be grown in several regions. “There’s a lot of optimism but growing a blueberry and getting it to fruit is only part of having a viable business. Blueberry growers, like all growers, are confronted by realities of rising costs of labour, input costs, fertiliser, chemistry, transport and compliance. Our returns in the main season are static so our margins are getting squeezed which challenges the viability for many growers.”

New growers looking for agronomy support can now utilise a crop protection programme specifically designed for blueberries by Elaine Gould, Fruitfed Supplies Technical Specialist for subtropicals. Seasonal programmes have also been developed by other industry organisations fairly recently.

Dan believes seeking growing support will help. “When we hold our own field days, there’s a sense of community for our growers. A problem shared is a problem halved even for long-standing growers. I think many of them value that as it’s easy to get bogged down on your own orchard.”