Demand for frozen produce from Ōhaupō’s Blueberry Country has surged as – it would seem – people adjust to life in lockdown.
Production of the frozen “superfood” at the company is up more than 40 percent in just a few weeks and there doesn’t appear to be a softening of the market on the horizon just yet.
By comparison though, the company’s export market is “noticeably lower”, according to CEO Jerem Wylie.
Mr Wylie told the News that prior to lockdown the company was tracking around 15–20 percent up in their frozen berry market this year, but in the last few weeks it had jumped to about 65 percent.
Exported produce made up four to five percent of the company’s total fresh sales and overall the company was tracking at about 90 percent of last year’s production.
Blueberry Country is owned and operated as a team effort between director Greg Furniss, his wife Alison, their son-in-law Warrick McDonald and daughter Kristen and Greg’s two sons – Paul and Geoff.
“There’s no doubt it has been challenging in areas this season.”
As well as in Ōhaupō, the company operates orchards in Waipu, Ngātea and Southland.
It grows blueberries on-site as well as importing and exporting berries to meet demand across fresh and frozen markets.
My Wylie said the increase in demand on the frozen front might in part be due to the myriad ways people could store and use the “superfood” while they were in lockdown.
“Blueberries are obviously great for health and wellbeing and because you can freeze them, they make a great breakfast lunch or dinner option.
“Then of course, with people at home, there’s an increase in home baking – and of course you can’t go past a good blueberry muffin.”
Typically, Australia and the developing markets of Thailand and Vietnam would be Blueberry Country’s biggest export markets, but the company is now more focussed on markets closer to home.
“There’s no doubt it has been challenging in areas this season,” Mr Wylie said of the current situation.
“But I think in tough years we just have to take our medicine. What we’re mostly focussed on at the moment is our domestic supply.”
One of those challenging aspects included factors that were “driving up and making significantly higher” the company’s import costs.
Throughout lockdown the business was picking and packing berries, while taking every precaution.
“Staff well-being is our number one priority,” Mr Wylie said.
“We’re being absolutely sure we follow all the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Health and staff are not being made to come to work, if they feel they would prefer to have some days at home.”
The company has less orchard staff working mid-lockdown than they typically would – those who would normally help prepare the orchard ground and get plants ready for planting as they look towards next season.
Typically, the blueberry season lasts from about late November to April – next season has not been adversely affected just yet, Mr Wylie said.
“We haven’t been hit too hard by having less orchard workers than say we normally would, but if lockdown goes on for longer than the projected four weeks we may have to re-assess that.”
Even prior to lockdown though there was a mitigating factor the company was already having to deal with – the lack of rain.
“Honestly though, that’s probably the bigger factor for us – the dry weather and the drought. We haven’t had much rain and that can mean that while the fruit is still there, they can be a lot smaller.”
Blueberry Country owners Greg and Alison, who had a background as beef farmers, grew their first blueberry plant in 1977.
In 1990 they became outright owners of Blueberry Country.