Adding blueberry production to an apple operation in Hawke's Bay
Marian and Graham Hirst run Bay Blueberries, a 40ha pipfruit and blueberry operation spread over six blocks just south of Hastings. The operation is focused on sustainable production of high quality fruit for export. Marian grew up on a Havelock North orchard, before moving away to study, then living in America. She and Graham returned to the region and began planting an apple orchard in the early 1990s.
Marian was an award winner in the 2016 New Zealand Enterprising Rural Women Awards.
Marian explains she and Graham have clearly defined roles in the orchard. They’re both passionate about growing high quality fruit as sustainably as possible. The business targets export markets, so fruit quality has to be exactly right.
They’ve survived the highs and lows that have affected the pipfruit industry. In 1994 they were hit by a hailstorm that severely damaged their apple crop. And they have worked their way through industry deregulation and the resulting uncertainty.
Their business has grown considerably since 1989 when they bought 11ha of bare land and planted 1.5ha of apples. Today they grow 35ha of apples and 3ha of blueberries.
They employ seven full-time staff (including themselves) as well as two permanent part-timers and a seasonal team of more than 100. The couple employs eight RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme) workers, who have now returned to the orchard for many harvest seasons.
While export apples account for 80 % of the business, the blueberry venture has developed considerably since Marian put in the first plantings in 2005.
In 2005 the pipfruit was suffering a downturn, so Marion decided to plant a trial crop of blueberries to diversify. “It was this, or one of us needed to go out to find work.” Marian says the move drew on complementary skills that were already being used in the pipfruit orchard.
Marian did a lot of research and the crop survived but she says she’s still learning, as the plants are quite fussy and require persistence to keep them thriving. In 2009 they picked their first blueberries.
Marian says the diversification also raised morale during those difficult times. The entire orchard team were involved in developing the blueberry crop, including planting and building the irrigation system.
The blueberry season in New Zealand typically starts in early November and goes right through until the end of April but blueberries can be used all year round as they are well suited to being frozen, canned or dried. They are a versatile fruit and can be used in all types of cooking and baking, as well as in preserves. As well as selling fresh and frozen berries, Marian is also developing a small range of their own blueberry products.
They began selling their fruit at the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market - and Marian credits the market with encouraging her to believe the business could thrive. She enjoys the direct consumer feedback and is grateful for advice that some of her customers offer.
Marian has now started working on a separate site to grow blueberries under cover and harvested the first crop from this block in 2017/2018. The tunnel house system she’s using is quite small (covering half a hectare) but Marian has plans to expand in stages over the next few years. She says the advantage of the tunnel houses is that it takes some risk out of the harvest as blueberries burst like cherries in the rain. A lot of the crop has been lost in the unusually wet 2017/2018 season. A covered crop also results in improved fruit quality and better harvest management.