By Danielle Kutchel
Blueberries are popping up in all sorts of Insta-worthy dishes on restaurant menus, but their heyday has been a long time coming. DANIELLE KUTCHEL spoke to the manager of Avonsleigh Berries, one of the state’s first blueberry farms, about these tiny blue gems – and why there’s more to them than just their unique colour.
“If people know more about blueberries, I think it opens up the world for them because they can do more with blueberries once they understand them.”
Blueberries are the superfood of choice for many of us these days – but it wasn’t always that way.
Harald Edlinger can remember a time when they were new to the Australian palate, an exotic blue fruit from a faraway land.
Harald’s father Frank was one of the original blueberry growers in Victoria, planting his first field in 1982 in Avonsleigh, out near Emerald, and founding Avonsleigh Berries in the process.
“My father and mother, being of Austrian descent, were looking to bring a bit of that homeland flavour and one of the fruits they really loved to Australia,” Harald explained.
Avonsleigh also grows raspberries and sour cherries, again harking back to its owners’ Austrian roots.
It was hard going for a while, introducing a new flavour to the Australian market. Blueberries were a rarity and their health benefits were not yet known.
With the industry in its infancy, Frank began exporting his produce back to Germany and Austria, as well as supplying the local market.
As the 1980s continued though, rising freight costs made the export side of the business more difficult to sustain.
But a new way forward offered itself in the form of ‘U pick’.
Since the early 90s, Avonsleigh Berries has operated on a 50/50 model: 50 percent U pick and 50 percent wholesale to the local greengrocer market.
It still operates in that way today.
Harald and his wife succeeded his father in 2014 and have been managing Avonsleigh Berries since then, focusing on offering an experience-based business rather than merely growing fruit.
Harald is passionate about helping people enjoy their fruit, and showing visitors what Avonsleigh does and how.
Visitors are shown how to pick cleanly and effectively so that they go home with high-quality berries.
Harald takes them on a 45 minute educational tour of the farm to showcase the different varieties of blueberry that Avonsleigh grows from its 5000 bushes.
Just like apples, there are hundreds of varieties of blueberries out there, all with their own flavour profile and texture.
“Some taste like paper, others taste like fruit loops, some taste like roses. We’ve got ones that are sharp and sour, and others that are like honey, or very sweet. Some are a bit meaty, others are hard and tough. You’ve got crisp and crunchy ones … and others are soft and silky and gentle,” Harald elaborated.
“Most people who come to our farm are very surprised!”
But each berry is treated the same way at Avonsleigh.
“Our fruit is hand-picked, sorted and packed. All the love and attention that goes into that is what we pride ourselves on,” he explained.
“We pick deliberately at optimum; we don’t try to pick the fruit too early. It makes a remarkable difference.”
Avonsleigh’s blueberries are kept as natural as possible, without the use of harsh pesticides.
In fact, pest control at the farm takes a rather feathery approach – ducks and guinea fowl!
The natural pest controllers gobble up snails and other insects while also helping to keep grass down in the orchard. Their droppings act as a naturally occurring fertiliser for the growing plants.
“We’re very happy with the way they work. As a by-product, we get some eggs!” Harald said.
Covid restrictions hit many farms in the region as border controls meant that backpacking fruit pickers were unable to enter the country.
But at Avonsleigh, the harvest continued as normal, because they don’t rely on backpackers to pick.
For years now, the farm has favoured local student labour during harvest season, and this continued in 2020.
“It works really well with uni studies because harvest is on when they have their break,” Harald explained.
Covid has also made people more aware of where their food comes from – but Harald says Avonsleigh’s customers are generally already focused on that.
Many of those customers have been visiting Avonsleigh for 30 years. Some were first brought to the farm for a U pick experience by their grandparents, and are now in turn bringing their own children, continuing the cycle.
Introducing children to the joy of eating blueberries is something that Harald really enjoys.
“You see their eyes light up, and you know it’s going to be a winner,” he said.
“It’s an experience of what fruit tastes like. You offer that up, and you’ve converted a child to being a lover of blueberries.”
And with blueberries enjoying their heyday – popping up in smoothies, breakfast bowls and more – Harald said it’s important to understand what to do with them.
Some make good jams, others are better in sauces.
“If people know more about blueberries, I think it opens up the world for them because they can do more with blueberries once they understand them,” Harald said.
That’s something he and other local growers can help with – as with apples, certain varieties work better in particular dishes, with flavours and textures bringing something special to the cooking.
Or, as Harald sums it up: “there is more to blueberries than the colour blue!”
Find Avonsleigh Berries at 26 Avon Road, Avonsleigh.