Food producers Cynthia Lim and Nick Bray have cracked the big problem – how do you go off the grid and still make a living in the real world? The couple moved to a 7 hectare property outside Melbourne Australia 12 years ago.
Some might have considered turning land over to cannabis cultivation – but not in Australia where cops act more like the Secret Service. Their answer: growing and selling blueberries.
They started with about 200 plants in 2004, just in time for the ‘‘drought of the century’’. But that ordeal has served them well.
‘‘We just thought we would give it a go and then the drought came along,’’ Ms Lim said.
‘‘But they (blueberries) seem to be robust, we’ve had 10 plants we’ve done nothing with,and they survived during the drought. They might not have had much fruit but they’ve survived.’’
They developed a brand name – Blue Tongue blueberries – and a loyal following in the area.
The couple have kept the operation small scale, with about 500 plants — there are 12 varieties from the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Their principal varieties are two from the US — Brigitta and Northland. Brigitta is the main crop grown in Victoria, and their source material was from a Gippsland grower, though Ms Lim’s personal favourite is the variety Denise. The varieties all have distinctly different tastes.
‘‘We just randomly selected the ones to start with and our intent was to try out the different ones and see what grew best,’’ Ms Lim said.
Blue Tongue blueberries are sold through a weekly fruit and vegetable stall run out of Somerset winery, with word of mouth the main method of imarketing. Not that the couple want to expand too much more, with water a major issue — it’s supplied by a dam on the property, and power is from solar or wind.
Their lifestyle choice seems to have been a winning decision — their Blue Tongue Berries fills a niche market.
‘‘We’re both scientists, Nick’s a chemist and I did environmental science, and we were looking to move,’’ Ms Lim said.
‘‘I was a sales rep for a long time and I got to drive around a lot and look at places and this seemed to suit us perfectly. It’s only an hour from Melbourne and it’s worked out brilliantly.’’
But why blueberries?
‘‘Because there was nothing similar around,’’ she said.
‘‘There were already olives and grapes and this was something a little bit different. They like acidic conditions and the soil was ideal — so far, so good.’’
‘‘Rather than shipping to Melbourne, a lot of stores there would like them but we don’t have enough supply for them.’’
The season has just started, and four pickers from Malta are busy selecting fruit off the plants.
Unlike grapes, the individual fruit matures at different rates — as can be seen from one of the photos here — and has to be picked individually off the bush, a skill in itself.
‘‘It takes a long time to get the skill to pick a blueberry at exactly the right time,’’ Ms Lim said.
‘‘We pick them and refrigerate them immediately. You have to inspect every single one of them before you put them in a punnet, which all means you pass over each plant maybe 30 times a season.
‘‘It’s laborious and really requires a lot of patience.’’
The couple are also expanding into seasonal produce, such as garlic and tomatoes.