As the weather warms up, berry grower Ron Humphreys gears up for his busy time of year.
Ron grows strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, sylvanberries, youngberries and loganberries on his 15 acre property ar Koorainghat, near Taree.
He had always been a keen gardener and grown raspberries for his family’s table, he says, so when he was made redundant from his job with the railways a few years back his wife, Chris, suggested that he grow them commercially, as the only ones available in the shops were “mouldy and disgusting”.
He started off with 50 raspberry plants and now, five years later, he has 2000 strawberries, 7000 raspberries, and hundred of the other berries growing healthily as testament to this success in what he describes as “turning a hobby into almost a business”.
All 2000 plastic pots the strawberries grow in are recycled from elsewhere, along with almost everything else involved in the process. The pots are mostly recycled from supermarkets and Ron buys bird netting and other horticultural bits and pieces from farm dispersal sales and the like.
“I just like to recycle everything - even the bench is made from recycled iron,” he says.
He is also obviously a great tinkerer and innovator, who has devised his own distinctive way of growing strawberries.The recycled plastic pots originally held cut flowers, so Ron now cuts holes in them, clips them together and stacks four of them vertically, with strawberries growing through holes cut in the sides.
The strawberries grow in potting mix and the plants are watered and fertilised from dripper pipes at the top of the “stack”, which filters down through all the levels.
Ron says he follows organic practices wherever possible and his other innovation, moving the strawberries off the ground and growing them on raised benches, along with keeping the rain off them, has helped greatly in reducing the need for spraying.
“Once you get them away from the ground you don’t have the trouble with the snails and slugs so you don’t have to hit them with pesticides all the time. And you don’t seem to get as many fungus diseases once you’ve got the berries up away from the ground,” he says.
He now does only a quarter of the amount of spraying he needed before, and all he now does is use organic approved fungus treatments such as copper and sulphur based sprays.
“We try to do organic as much as we can. I think organic strawberries would be almost impossible. But they do exist.
“Damn lot of work, but,” he says.
“Strawberries are 10 times the work of the other berries for half the return.”
Ron doesn’t use any sprays at all on his other berries. All the berries are covered with bird netting to keep the bower birds, in particular away from them. “If you didn’t net it you wouldn’t get any fruit at all.”
He says he wouldn’t mind if the bower birds just ate a few berries, but they move around, pecking at numerous strawberries and making them unsaleable.
Ron and Chris sell their berries through local retailers, markets and at the farm gate - with the biggest volume of sales being direct from the farm.
“We’re getting a bit of a name now, so a fair few people come to the farm gate. Once I take that sign down out on the (main) road that says ‘no berries today’ people start coming,” he says.
They also supply a few restaurants.
“Everything goes local,” Ron says.
The strawberries were just starting to ripen when Town & Country visited in late August and, with luck, should continue to bear until late February.
The other berries should fruit progressively from November onward.
Ron irrigates the berries from a dam on the property but had to stop his hydroponic lettuce growing because of a lack of tank water. Hydroponic growing requires good quality water and the 2000 lettuces he had in were using 500 litres a day in summer, which he couldn’t keep up to them.
The raspberries consist of just a few new leaves at this time of year, having been pruned back to ground level over winter.
Many of the berries need a “chill factor” period of time under five degrees, so the ground is left bare in winter and mulched again to keep weeds down once they start growing again in spring.
The blackberries and boysenberries are mostly just canes, with emerging buds showing where berries will form when the weather warms up.
Strawberry plants are good for two years usually, Ron says, with yield and fruit size declining as they age.
Smaller and less marketable fruit is made into jam to give the farm a value-added line of products.
Aside from farm gate sales the berries are retailed by Granty’s at Wingham, The Salad Bowl and Farmers Patch at Forster and Solomon’s at Taree, Ron says.
As we head to the house to look at the verandah “farm shop”, Ron points out another of his ingenious innovations - a 200-litre plastic drum with holes cut into its sides from which strawberry plants are growing. He filled the drum with potting mix, added some compost worms and now the household’s vegetable scraps go in the top to the feed the worms, which in turn feed the plants with their castings.
He’s always coming up with something new, he says.