A BRIEF synopsis of the Australian Blueberry Industry
Introductory Production Information
Australian and World production
Seasonal growth cycle
Native to North America, the blueberry, is also known as bilberries, whortleberries and hurtle berries, (Filippone 2006). The blueberry is a member of the Ericaceae, or Heather family and its growth was regulated by the indigenous peoples of North America (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2005). Blueberries are of the genus Vaccinium, which originates from the Latin word vacca, which means cow. Captain James Cook, circa late 1700s, noted in his records that cows really liked to eat this tasty berry (Filippone 2006). The first European settlers recognized these berries to be analogous to kinds of berries found in their land of birth. For example, there's the blaeberry which is found in Scotland, whortleberries in Ireland, bilberries in Denmark, blabar in Sweden, or bickberren and blauberren in Germany (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2005).
The blueberry varieties that are the most widespread are known as the "highbush" blueberry. The wild "lowbush" varieties are a growing favourite in recent years due to their health attributes (Filippone 2006). Blueberries are well-known for being rich in antioxidant compounds that fight free radicals that are associated with cancer, heart disease and premature aging (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2005).
Introductory Production Information
To be productive, it is essential that blueberry bushes receive full, unobstructed sun exposure, and be planted in organically-rich, sandy acidic soil. Many reports state that this plant has the propensity to live for a duration of fifty years or more and can become over 2.5 metres tall. Blueberry bushes must be planted with their growth potential in mind (Cross 2009). Mitigating the transference of poor quality berries into the system, leads to an increase of overall product quality and grade (Chiasson 1996). Producing quality blueberries is strongly reliant on an appropriate harvesting technique and having excellent fertility and pollination programs (Yarborough 1994).
Considering Australia's continual bombardment of feral species introductions throughout its history, the introduction of blueberries in the 1950s was completely unsuccessful. During the early 1970s and determined to have the blueberries "take root" in Australia, David Jones and Ridley Bell, both from the Victorian Department of Agriculture, started to import seed from both Canada and the U.S. During this time the Australian Blueberry Growers Association (ABGA) was formed (Clayton-Greene 1999). Victoria was the first to commercially grow blueberries in around the year 1974. A decade later, on the north coast of New South Wales, a second crop of commercially-viable cultivars were planted (DPI 2008). Approximately 50% of blueberries are sold as fresh market fruit into the Australian domestic market, 30% is exported to Asia and Europe, while the remaining 20% of fruit is processed, principally as frozen product (DPI 2008). Australian consumers can enjoy fresh blueberries practically year-round with the peak production during the months of October to March. This omnipresence of marketable blueberries is due primarily to the geographic spread of crops and the climate in Australia. (ABS 2008).
Australian and World Production
In 2009, the United States produced 165,198 metric tonnes of blueberries (FAO STATS 2010). Producing over 25% of all lowbush blueberries in North America, Maine is world's largest producer (Fedefruta 2007). Michigan is the leader in highbush production (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center 2009). In 1998, Michigan farms produced 220,000 metric tonnes of blueberries (Michigan Department of Agriculture 2010).
In 2009, the Canada produced 103,070 metric tonnes of blueberries (FAO STATS 2010). Quantifiably so, British Columbia was deemed one of the most productive growing regions in the world and is the largest Canadian producer of highbush blueberries, yielding 29,000 metric tonnes in 2004 (British Columbia Blueberry Council 2007). Atlantic Canada has experienced a threefold increase in production since the 1980s, and as such, contributes 68,000 metric tonnes, which is almost half of the total North American annual production (Yarborough 2004, British Columbia Blueberry Council 2007).
In 2009, Europe produced 35,242 metric tonnes of blueberries (FAO Stats 2010). The biggest producer of wild blueberries is in Litloya, Norway (Naumann 1993). Highbush blueberries were first introduced to Germany and the Netherlands in the 1930s and now we can see their presence in Poland, Italy, Hungary, and Sweden (Naumann 1993). The north eastern part of Turkey is one of the main sources wild blueberries in the Mediterranean region (Naumann 1993).
In 2009, the Southern hemisphere (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia) produced approximately 31000 Metric Tonnes of blueberries (FAO STATS 2010). Currently, production continues to increase in all states of Australia. In 2010, Australia produced over 2,400 tonnes of blueberries, value at over $30 million (ABGA 2011). The blueberry farming industry is even newer in Argentina and its production has increased 400% in the last 3 years (USDA 2009). In South America, Chile is the largest exporter to the northern hemisphere, with an estimated area of 6,800 hectares (Asoex 2007). It has been reported that Chile exported in 2007 more than 21,000 metric tonnes of fresh blueberries and more than 1,000 metric tonnes of frozen product (Fedefruta 2007).
For production to be considered profitable, the minimum size of an orchard is 4 hectares (Wilk 2008). For this typical arrangement, we look at farms in northern NSW where there are usually about 3700 plants per hectare. Planted on mounded rows, each plant is 0.8 meters apart within the row and 3 meters from other rows (Wilk 2008). It is not until the fourth year of production that we consider the plants mature enough to produce the expected 2-3 kg of berries per season. It should be noted that there may be some production of around 0.5-1 kg of fruit per plant per season that will commence in the second year (Wilk 2008). Some cultivars in southern Australia are planted at a density of only 2000 to 2100 plants per hectare. This may produce 4-5 kg of fruit, but full production does not occur until the fifth year. Many growers in this region regularly produce 5 kg of fruit (Wilk 2008).
Blueberries are perennial flowering plants that produce a dark-purple berry (Clayton 1999). They are usually erect and range in size from 10 centimetres to 4 metres tall (IAPT 2003). Smaller species are known as "lowbush blueberries" (synonymous with "wild"), and the larger species are known as "highbush blueberries"(IAPT 2003). The leaves can be deciduous or evergreen, ovate to lanceolate, and 1 -- 8 centimetres long and 0.5 -- 3.5 centimetres broad. The flowers are bell-shaped, white, pale pink or red, sometimes tinged greenish (IAPT 2003). The fruit is a berry 5 -- 16 millimetres diameter with a flared crown at the end; they are pale greenish at first, then reddish-purple, and finally indigo when ripe (IAPT 2003). They have a sweet taste when mature, with variable acidity (IAPT 2003). Blueberry bushes typically bear fruit in the middle of the growing season: fruiting times are affected by local conditions such as altitude and latitude, so the height of the crop can vary from May to August depending upon these conditions (Clayton 1999).
Vaccinium is a genus of shrubs or dwarf shrubs in the Kingdom of Plantae, the plant Order of Ericales, and the Family Ericaceae (IAPT 2003). The fruit of many species are eaten by humans and some are of commercial importance, including the cranberry, blueberry, bilberry or whortleberry, lingonberry or cowberry, and huckleberry. Like many other ericaceous plants, they are generally restricted to acidic soils (IAPT 2003).
In Australia, the three most common varieties that are grown commercially include the 'northern highbush', 'southern highbush' and the 'rabbit eye' blueberry (Rhodes 2006). There are many cultivars associated with these varieties, many of which are well suited for the Australian climate (Clayton-Greene 1999). The 'northern highbush' types can only be grown in areas with cold winters, whilst the 'southern highbush' and 'rabbit eye' types can be grown in areas with warmer winters (ABS 2008). Some globally important varieties include (WIKI 2011):
Vaccinium angustifolium -- Lowbush Blueberry
Vaccinium boreale -- Northern Blueberry
Vaccinium caesariense -- New Jersey Blueberry
Vaccinium corymbosum -- Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium darrowii -- Evergreen Blueberry
Vaccinium elliottii -- Elliott's Blueberry
Vaccinium fuscatum -- Black Highbush Blueberry; syn. V. atrococcum
Vaccinium virgatum -- Rabbiteye Blueberry; syn. V. ashei
Starting as a woody plant, the leaves initiate growth at the base and grow to the top of the plant and generate thick green water storing stems and leaves, known as canes (Valehzuela 2009). There is significant variation between this genus where the smaller lowbush blueberry plant grows no more than a meter in height, whereas the highbush blueberry plants can be anywhere from 1.5 meters to 3.5 meters in height (Valehzuela 2009). It should be noted that the rabbiteye blueberry has been…