From Soil to Substrate. . .

RABA_02The development of the berry industry in Australia
Raspberry and blackberry production under protected cropping in Australia is set to expand. The forecast growth will come from new higher yielding varieties, year-round production, and increasing consumer demand for fresh, healthy, convenient and tasty berries. By JONATHAN ECCLES

The raspberry and blackberry industry has been a minor player in Australian horticulture in the past. Traditionally, production was from small family farms located in temperate areas in Southern Victoria and Tasmania. In the last 10 years, production has increased due mainly to the introduction of higher yielding varieties, which were also able to be grown in warmer climates and extend the seasonal availability of the fruit. Berries are now grown in subtropical regions such as South East Queensland and Northern NSW. There is even interest in growing in Far North Queensland, looking at winter production for local tourist markets such as around Cairns.

Raspberry growth habit. (Image courtesy Ohio State University)

Raspberry growth habit. (Image courtesy Ohio State University)

Expanding market
The arrival of large marketing companies further reinforces raspberries and blackberries as an ever popular fresh produce line. Such companies are able to focus on delivering extended supply of consistent quality fruit over many months. With near all-year-round supply, supermarkets are now seeing opportunities to promote the category and use berries as an enticement into the produce section.

Rasperberry varieties are classified into two groups:

  • Floricanes: those that fruit in spring/summer on canes that grow in the previous year, and
  • Primocanes: those that fruit not only on the previous year’s canes, but also produce fruit in late summer/autumn on current year’s canes.

Primocane varieties are grown in more northern areas of Australia (northern NSW / South East Queensland) to produce blackberry varieties available so production is limited to southern areas using floricane types with a shorter summer harvest period. Overseas, there is a greater choice, but we are unable to import new varieties as many, including some promising primocane types, have parentage which is considered ‘invasive and weediness potential’. There are concerns from government regulators that such varieties could escape into the environment or breed with existing wild blackberries.

Soil-borne diseases
In the late 1990s, a soil-borne disease (Phytophthora fragariae var. Rudi) was accidently introduced into Australia, which all but destroyed susceptible raspberry varieties. Production was severely affected for two years until pathogen tested material was made available and new tolerant varieties introduced. This coincided with the emergence of undercover production, mainly using rain shelter and plastic covers. With the increase risk of soil-borne diseases, the adoption of permanent protective shelters meant rotating crops became impractical. Soil fumigation was not an option due to cost, environmental issues and lack of suitable chemicals.

Production areas some 10 years ago.

Production areas some 10 years ago.

Hydroponics and protected cropping
Growers soon started experimenting with hydroponic systems and learning from their counterparts in the United Kingdom where ‘substrate’ production was becoming increasingly popular. While various production systems have been trialled, the most popular is the use of free-standing pots and coconut husk fibre as the substrate. Non-recirculating nutrient systems are used due to concerns of potentially introducing root diseases. Improved crop management using a combination of pruning and nutrition means that growers have the opportunity to manage their crops to effectively schedule fruit production to meet market demand.

Production areas now.

Production areas now.

Rain shelters have been adopted by nearly all commercial growers as the value of the crop and the high risk of rain during harvest can justify the cost of such structures. As we learn more about the physiology of cane berries and how to manipulate the cropping cycling coupled with new high producing varieties, it is inevitable that we will see cane berries being grown in totally controlled, protected cropping environments under hydroponic systems in the same way we have seen the evolution of greenhouse tomato production.

Soil-grown cane berries usually have an economic life of five to eight years, sometimes shorter should soil-borne disease infect the crop, or new improved varieties were introduced into Australia, which encouraged growers to replant. Crops grown in hydroponic systems production have a faster turnaround as plants will lose economic production after three years, mainly as the plants outgrow the container and lose vigour. In northern, warmer areas, this replanting can be every two years as it is ought that the lack of winter chilling educes the productive life of the crop.

Rain shelters have been adopted.

Rain shelters have been adopted.

Nurseries started using more tissue culture as a means to rapidly bulk up new varieties at a reduced cost and ease of distributing to quarantine sensitive production areas. However, there are still some advantages in propagating new plants from root cuttings as tissue cultured plants take longer to reach fruit production stage. Root propagated plants are preferred by growers in northern areas as it is thought that the chilling experienced in the southern nurseries has an effect on fruit production.

Greenhouses extend  harvest season.

Greenhouses extend harvest season.

Challenges
While the berry industry has had the good fortune of rising consumer demand driving increased production, there are still challenges facing the industry. A national statutory levy was introduced in 2011 to invest in research and development and promotions and is now set at 12 cents per kilogram collected at the first point of sale. The small allocations assigned to promotions meant that it has only been in the last two years have there been sufficient funds to undertake any promotional activities, so it is important to see these funds used efficiently and effectively and complement other commercial marketing strategies. There are opportunities to work more with the other berry sectors promoting berries as a healthy, nutritious, convenient and tasty product. Research and development has focused mainly on introducing new raspberry varieties into Australia, accessing pesticides through the minor use program, and developing the industry overall.

Blackberry long cane production.

Blackberry long cane production.

The future for the raspberry and blackberry industry is to work closer with the other berry sectors, blueberries and strawberries. Traditionally, different growers were involved in each commodity, but this is no longer the case. Each of the three industry groups have been at different stages of industry development and had different priorities. These are also merging more and more. Biosecurity, integrated pest management and minor use, market access, food safety, reducing labour costs and improved pollination using bumblebees are just some of the issues common to all.

About the author
Jonathan Eccles is the Executive Officer / Industry Development Manager for Raspberries & Blackberries Australia Inc. (RABA) – PO Box 221, Ourimbah, NSW 2258, Australia; Ph: +61 407 242 757, Email: jonathan.eccles@raba.com.au   Ω

PH&G August 2015 / Issue 158


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