Phil Rowe and Cathy Taylor are the owners of Sunny Creek Berry Farm. They were one of the first organic growers to incorporate many permaculture ideas into a fully commercial scale venture, and the property is still one of the best examples of a permaculture inspired diverse polyculture managed in accordance with organic standards. Chestnut trees spread over apples which in turn over-grow mixed berries. Berry crops grow over strawberries within the same row, and in any direction the rows of crops are different. Close spaced berries, currants, apples, stone fruit and nuts are the main feature of the property. Phil has planted raspberries and brambleberries over older strawberries rather than removing them, in a technique he calls "successional planting". He says that he is getting additional yield without much extra effort and the strawberries do some of his weed control for him.
Phil Rowe was one of the first committee members and president of the Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Victoria (later the Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Australia – ORGAA, and now part of NASAA) and a NASAA Board member in the early days of certification. He remains a member of the NASAA Inspection Review Committee. He is also very active in the Rubus Growers Association.
The property of 10.1 hectares was purchased in 1980. About 3 hectares is under production, including 200 apples. Originally 330 chestnut trees were grown but this number has been reduced to 150 trees by phytophthora and culling to make way for more profitable fruit. About 22 trees are picked to yield around 1.5 tonne of chestnuts. They once harvested 3.5 tonne, but due to changes in supply requirements many nuts from seedling trees are no longer sellable.
When they started out, Phil and Cathy were seeking self-sufficiency, in a family based operation. Phil says, "we failed, because it is very hard to run a large scale vegetable plot with berries".
He continues, "berries have a very short season; they are a seasonal 'ecological niche' crop and very demanding during that time. We found that we could not juggle self sufficiency with the demands of the annual berry crop."
"This is especially so because we also have to manage the long term crops, such as the chestnuts."
"We even have problems with the work load of the strawberries interfering with the pre-harvest work in raspberries."
"We have the capacity to be more self sufficient if the need should arrive, but for now we simply accept that the berries are more important."
A very wide variety of berries are grown at Sunny Creek Berry farm, and a variety of apples, chestnuts and other fruit and nut crops. Phil has a great deal of knowledge about the origin, horticultural and culinary qualities of the varieties, and is able to identify many varieties, as we move around the property.
According to Phil, the main pests are the wildlife, including the wallabies, which love raspberries. He says "e have fed up to 30 wallabies in the past; raspberries must be their favourite food"
"We have improved the fences now, but the wombats are still a problem. Our property is a series of headlands which feed several gullies and is preferred wombat country."
"Wombats love chestnuts, hazelnuts and the Cox's Orange Pippin apples, which always shed fruit prior to harvest. There are always windfalls and the wombats know where they are."
"If we don't pick up the chestnuts, there is a huge food resource for wombats and the chestnuts that escape wombats become a major weed in the raspberries."
"The wombats push through anything in their way, including the bird netting. It makes a big mess and we are continually trying to increase the area which is completely protected from wombats."
"Birds are also a problem. If we protect their preferred crops, they just move to the next best food crop. In order they seem to prefer cherries, blueberries, strawberries, sweet raspberries and then the less sweet raspberries."
"If we did not net we would loose 95% of the raspberries and strawberries."
About 40 varieties of raspberries are grown on the property, including black and yellow selections, which really add to the colour and presentation of 'mixed berry' punnets. Only about 10 varieties are a major commercial proposition, the others are planted for minor interest and selection. Phil says "the wildlife will soon tell you which are the sweetest varieties".
"It is our experience through the berry growers association that those growers with monocultures have no bush and plenty of insect pests. The growers with bush have a bird problem and are forced to net. We would rather have the bush because at least we can net. Growers without bush have a far greater problem getting on top of insect pests, whereas the biodiversity here is a significant aid for us."
"For instance, we do not get thrips in problematic numbers.
"Some level of sacrifice is possible too, as an aid to management. For instance we could grow red currants without a net if we have ripening cherries. The only real answer is a serious netted enclosure for total exclusion."
"The disadvantage of nets is that it hard to get the birds out when the net is breached." The family dog is obviously a great assistance with this task, while we were strolling around the property, it caught one blackbird outside the net. Evidently it gets several each week, mainly inside the nets.
Phil continues, "we have blackbirds, starlings, the native silvereyes, and rosellas in the blackberries and chestnuts".
"Rosellas seem to do wilful damage in the chestnuts. We think much of the vandalism is to keep their beaks sharp. They will shred fruit off of the bramble berries and shred the chestnuts without eating them."
My experience with rosellas as a chestnut grower in the Adelaide Hills is that they will eat the germ only, leaving the remainder of the fruit untouched.
Phil told me "the pressure from birds is really on once the wild blackberries have finished".
"We use a lot of drape over nets, which are only required for a short window of the growing cycle. We put them on before the cropping season and remove them after harvest, before too much growth goes through the net, and we reuse them many times. We buy several thousand clothes pegs each year to make repairs. In the long term walk through enclosures would be best."
I asked Phil where he got the inspiration for some of his diverse plantings. He said, "Mollison mentions berries in enclosures in Permaculture 1, as a way of paying for the longer term development of permaculture systems. We traded the self sufficiency goal and diet variability for the advantages of a saleable crop which people seem to want."
Phil has several hundred apples, particularly Cox's Orange Pippin trees, making him a reasonably large grower of this old fashioned English variety. He told me "they are OK in Tasmania, and just OK here as we are the coolest part of mainland Australia."
"The modern variety, Royal Gala, is a derivative of Cox’s, with a waxier skin. The Cox’s variety is the best known of the old fashioned varieties and will sell on name, whereas other heritage varieties are difficult to market."
"Some old varieties have a potential for niche markets, but the Cox's is famous in its own right. It is not grown in many places and is not ideally suited to organic production methods."
"We are surprised that the organic apple market is not diversifying away from the same few varieties that the conventional market relies upon, even though the standard varieties are bred for high input systems."
"Scab resistance is a characteristic which organic apple growers might concentrate on a lot more, but it is easier to stick with the few standard varieties."
"Our apple production is really marginal to the berry crops."
Phil and Cathy have a 'pick your own' section and they value add by making jam, sauce and preserve products. They also sell some stone fruit, but sales are small. Phil said, "our stone fruit crop is so small that wholesalers would not normally be interested. They sell them for us because we provide a good reliable source of berries, which they appreciate."
"The processing market has to exist, if we want to market good berries. There is always a ‘grade out’ percentage, which we could (and do) sell to other processors, but some value adding has helped us along too."
"It may not be the most efficient way to grow a processing berry, but in practice it has to happen. Supplying to other processors in competition with growers of process berries is difficult, so there is a big incentive to become a small processor ourselves."
"We don't grow many varieties specially for processing. We do have a very good purple raspberry that makes beautifully coloured jam. The seasonal production leads us to many different varieties and they have a variable 'grade out' rate."
"Process strawberries costs us $2 kilo to pick, $2 kilo to cut fruit up and therefore we would have to sell it for $6 per kilo to cover storage and delivery costs. And that’s too much for processing fruit."
Sunburn or UV damage cause blackberries to have the highest percentage of second quality fruit. With blackberries, even being too ripe means they are only suited to processing, as they won't travel. That is the same for a ripe peach, it is only good for processing."
"This year we may not pick seconds, we will just put them on the ground. That is OK when we pick ourselves, but the pickers don't like it because it slows them up. We could build a better jam market, especially if we had more access to certified organic sugar."
"Some of our berries are exported, mainly to SE Asian resorts and five star hotels, and we air freight to Cairns around Christmas. Organic is not really sought after by these markets, but we sell on an agreed price which is a premium over the wholesale price."
"It is a difficult market to service because they only want quality fruit, they want us to commit in advance to quantities and they only want a small amount, with separate invoices for each order, which may only be 1 - 20 trays. The fruit is picked early and according to a QA system, and we have to know which varieties will travel well. We grow all kinds of berries so we have to manage ourselves to fit the berries. Large conventional operations manage the berries to suit themselves and their routines. We also need skilled pickers to handle the differences between varieties."
Phil calls the requirement for under ripe fruit in the marketplace 'picking backwards'. In other words he has to know how the fruit will mature and ripen during transport and storage so that it will be perfectly ripe in the store (or restaurant) and he has to pick back from that point depending on how long the particular variety takes to reach perfection. This includes allowances for ending up in a humid atmosphere somewhere in Thailand or other Asian destinations. He says "raspberries ripen very quickly and we have to 'pick backwards' carefully. Strawberries take longer to go through the cycle, but they have to be ripe in the store."
"If the weather is lousy we may need to air dry fruit or roll it in towels. We also loose overall yield by picking early, as the fruit does not have time to reach full size and mass
"If we were only picking for jam we could just pick once per week, as variable ripeness would not be a problem. If we spread the harvest over 5 or 6 days there is less fruit per row at each visit and that means more hunting time to find the same amount and quality of fruit."
"Some of the most prodigious yielding varieties have a poor shelf life."
"Australian labour rates for hand picked fruit make it difficult to direct this fruit to processing markets. Even machine picked fruit from Australia cannot really compete with South American fruit, especially from Chile."
"Processing organic fruit under certification conditions is difficult."
"We have noticed a certified sugar on the market now."
"e have tried to apply the certification rules responsibly and accurately, which means most of our processed products are not certified. We sell them as 'made from organically grown fruit'. Many of our competitors have the word organic in their brand name."
"We do make a fully certified honey sweetened jam. The native flora honey is flavoured and coloured, which is not ideal and affects the taste and appearance of the jam. Also the intrinsic benefits of the raw honey, which the apiarist is proud of, are really lost in the processed jam."
"The risk factor in organic production is not really appreciated. For instance we cannot use phosphoric acid, which the conventional growers use for phytophthora."
"IFOAM standards and the AQIS standard prohibit us from using this product, which was not much used by European growers anyway as it is less effective in cool climates. We think it is a very fine alternative to copper and would help to reduce reliance on copper sprays."
"Much of the fruit we market is not sold because it is organic. This is true of 90% of the pick-your own. People are pleased to hear that it is organic, but only a minor number specifically come here for that reason alone."
"Strawberries are difficult for the organic grower too. We are trying to encourage the next phase of development in the strawberry industry, which is to put the flavour back. Conventional growers only use the modern large fruited varieties, which have almost no taste. We think there is a niche market for heritage varieties, but they do have problems. The variety Cambridge has great flavour but short shelf life. They may also produce fruit for a shorter season and the taste can vary throughout the season."
"The time of a good punnet of strawberries under $5 punnet has gone."
"Supermarkets are making the industry tougher too. They have changed their accounting costs so that many more expenses are going back to the grower and they want contracts for exact quantities. If the contract specifies 50 punnets then 49 or 51 is not good enough."
"Our cocktail punnets of mixed berries are a popular item and they help us to sell small quantities of different berries."
Phil is heavily involved with the Rubus Growers Association and chairs the Breeding Committee. His 'fruit salad' plantings are highly valued as a resource and he is a mine of information on the growing requirements, yield, flavour, shelf life and processing uses of many varieties. He says there has been a return in information from his time investment in the association, which has informed his production methods. His time commitment to the NASAA review committee is also significant.
Phil provides the following advice for intending organic growers of berries. "You need to be enthusiastic, you need to be interested in marketing and you need a diversity of crops".
"It is sometimes tempting to just produce cheap berries for the local market, rather than the fussing over export and HACCP plans. We have learnt that the requirements for food production in Australian are very, very high. Our international visitors through the Rubus Growers Association find it hard to believe the presentation and quality. We do have very high quality food here. The price is that every berry has to be picked over and graded and every punnet weighed and presented in the most effective manner."