Australian blackberries limited by biosecurity "weed" approach

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Australian blackberries limited by biosecurity "weed" approach

In the last four years Australia's raspberry production has tripled as new varieties have allowed growers to produce fruit in warmer regions, extending harvest windows and building a critical mass for the fruit. The same could be true for blackberries if Biosecurity Australia were to change its policy on blackberry plant material imports, according to industry representative Jonathan Eccles. He tells he sympathizes with the authorities' stance to prevent invasive weeds, but believes greater recognition of changing horticultural practices could lead to a more promising outcome for the berry industry.

The Raspberries & Blackberries Australia (RABA) executive officer says the challenge for blackberries comes down to two key points; most Australians do not traditionally consume them, and restrictions on plant material imports prevent the introduction of tastier varieties that can be grown over more months of the year.

Blackberries and Raspberries for HAL. Photography by Quentin Jones. Styling by Louise Bickle. Recipes and food prep by Lucy Busuttil. March 2013.

Blackberries and Raspberries for HAL. Photography by Quentin Jones. Styling by Louise Bickle. Recipes and food prep by Lucy Busuttil. March 2013.

"Consumers often associate blackberries being a weed, which they are, so there's a negative connotation," says Eccles.

"Blackberries are still quite novel for the rest of the country to actually see – that's not to say they're not growing in demand, but people's experiences with blackberries can be quite different because you can’t actually tell whether a blackberry is ripe or overripe; it's black no matter what.

"You can have the same fruit from the same plant one week and it can be better, and next week it can be very sweet - there's variation in the fruit quality from the same plant."

These are issues researchers and marketers around the world have sought to overcome through breeding programs and post-harvest practices, but Australia is at a disadvantage if it cannot get a hold of all the new developments.

"We really just depend on some of the varieties we brought in many years ago, and that's what's limiting our capacity to develop the blackberry market in Australia," says Eccles.

"New varieties are deemed as a weed, and any new variety that comes into this country has to be assessed for its weediness potential.

"Biosecurity Australia in Canberra will look at a particular variety's parentage and genetics that are supplied by the importing company. If there is any hint of a species that is known to have weed potential, that will now cut the opportunity of bringing that variety in, because there's a concern the variety will breed with our existing wild blackberries and breed a super blackberry weed."

While the prospect of such a pest is threatening to both agriculturalists and conservationists alike, RABA is using its levy funds to develop a new project that would enlist an expert on the subject, in a bid to find a practical solution that mitigates pest risks while helping the sector flourish.

"We're certainly sympathetic to the issue we have with weeds in Australia, but we think the assessment process is unfair to the new varieties of blackberries," Eccles says.

"We think the assessment process is unfair to the new varieties of blackberries, and it’s really the assessment is too heavily biased towards looking at new varieties from a weeds point of view, rather than the horticultural, agronomic point of view of that berry.

"And I also think that the way we grow blackberries these days like under tunnels, hydroponics, with bird netting, there needs to be a greater understanding of how we grow blackberries here as a commercial crop."

He says the solution comes down to bringing "two ideas, two thought processes together to find some kind of consensus".

"Over in the U.S. at the University of Arkansas I have seen some primacane varieties of blackberries which we don’t have in this country, which would allow us to grow blackberries in warmer areas," he says.

"Right now we can't do that as there's insufficient chilling chilling to develop the flower buds on our floricane blackberries."

Following the raspberry example

Eccles highlights significant changes in the Australian raspberry industry, which have also been greatly supported by the entrance of U.S. multinational Driscoll's to the market, prompting other businesses to come up in its slipstream.

"While we’ve been growing the berries in Australia for many years, it used to be confined to the cooler areas such as Victoria and Tasmania and they were only consumed in that local geographical area, so they weren't well known by the average Australian consumer," he says.

"What we saw was the development of new varieties which allowed them to be grown in warmer areas, basically low chill varieties, and other types of varieties called primacanes which are fruiting in spring and autumn.

"What we’ve seen is those newer varieties, those primacanes, being able to be grown in warmer climates up through New South Wales, now in southern Queensland, and they’re focusing on the winter production and early spring."

He says there is now a similar development in Perth to supply the Western Australian market, while raspberries are now growing as far north as Bundaberg and trials are under consideration in the Atherton Tableland near Cairns.

"That has allowed us to have production nine to 10 months of the year coming from different parts of the country and we've been able to generate the volume.

"With the volume comes the interest from the supermarkets because they’ve been able to generate critical mass and long lines of supply with supermarkets.

"That's created a greater exposure of berries to consumers, where they didn’t originally have any access to raspberries in Sydney and Brisbane."

But the growth has not only come from the northern states. The increased demand has allowed for the traditional growing states of Victoria and Tasmania to plant more fruit as well.

"There certainly has been enormous plantings in Tasmania – probably more so than anywhere else, and Victoria has always been a fairly high producer," Eccles says.

"While the Tasmanian climate is ideal for raspberry production, there wasn't a huge amount grown there because of the small domestic consumption in Tasmania and not a lot came across into mainland Australia from Tasmania.

"It does now of course, and Queensland certainly is growing rapidly to fill that winter market, as is northern New South Wales."

He adds that like in blueberries, the northern growing regions have been focused on substrate production.

Also similarly to blueberries, Eccles emphasizes it's important to start the ball rolling early in gaining market access overseas for Australian raspberries and blackberries.

"There’s no indication that the consumer demand is slowing and I’m anticipating that we will still see the same sort of growth rates probably in the next year – it may start to slightly taper off but we will still have the growth," he says.

"One of the challenges I think for the Australian industry will be like for the blueberry industry, that our consumer base is relatively small at 22 million – we need to look at export markets, and there lies a challenge for the berry category because of the market access issues that we have getting berries to countries such as China and Japan.

"With market access it’s a case of you have to be very forward thinking because timelines in getting access is many years. It’s too late to start thinking about market access to these new countries when you’re in a position of overproduction."

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