Monday, 28 January 2019 10:55

Region helps magic berries to thrive

Written by  Nigel Malthus
South Canterbury horticulturalist Hamish McFarlane amid tall rows of blackcurrants which he expects to harvest for Barkers in mid-January. Photo: Rural News Group. South Canterbury horticulturalist Hamish McFarlane amid tall rows of blackcurrants which he expects to harvest for Barkers in mid-January. Photo: Rural News Group.

The rich black colour of blackcurrants is what makes them so valuable, says South Canterbury grower Hamish McFarlane.

The colour comes from a class of antioxidants called anthocyanins. 

“Little wee bits of magic,” he tells Hort News; they give blackcurrants the health and wellness benefits they are famous for.

McFarlane believes something about the climate that makes South Canterbury ideal for growing the fruit.

“Some of the varieties we have here are the same as what’s grown overseas but ours would probably be double the anthocyanins. We believe it’s due to our latitude.” 

McFarlane is carrying on a tradition begun by his father, who started supplying fruit in 1981 to the iconic Geraldine fruit processor Barkers, who use blackcurrants in a range of syrups, jams and condiments. 

About 100ha of his 550ha is planted in blackcurrants. He also grows barley, seeds, potatoes for McCains, and variously coloured carrots for a Timaru company that juices them for export. 

He also grazes a few trade lambs and dairy heifers.

Barkers’ chief commercial officer, Nicky Donkers, says McFarlane is one of their key blackcurrant suppliers in Mid and South Canterbury. She agrees that New Zealand blackcurrants contain some of the highest levels of anthocyanins in the world and they are also an excellent source of vitamin C and other antioxidant polyphenols.

Donkers says proof of their health benefits, backed by “credible and continually evolving research,” is stronger than ever and that is a message Barkers and the industry want to get out to the public. 

People are going to live longer but want to be fit.

“Many sportspeople are also now using blackcurrants in some form for exercise recovery. They are a natural functional ingredient powerhouse,” she adds.

McFarlane says part of the reason he likes blackcurrants is their low environmental footprint, low fertiliser needs and their not being grown in a monoculture. Grass grows between the rows and crowds out most weeds.

Blackcurrants are planted in winter from cuttings, produce their first crop two and half years later, and may produce for up to 15 years. Depending on variety, McFarlane may mow them right back to ground level once during their lifetime. He side prunes annually to take out branches encroaching into the space between rows. 

He runs an integrated pest management (IPM) programme incorporating cultural, biological and chemical controls, aiming to let nature sort out problems where possible. 

Cultural control means being smart about what gets planted, where and how. Biological control includes releasing a predator species to deal with a pest called the two-spotted mite, which otherwise can be a problem in the heat of January. Pheromone ties every 3m down the rows attack another significant pest -- the currant clearwing moth -- by confusing them “so they forget to mate,” says McFarlane. 

He makes sure any chemicals used are carefully targeted to pests and are safe for the beneficials. “So we’re not organic, but we use best practice.”

McFarlane has half a dozen main blackcurrant varieties with different behaviours, flavour profiles and harvesting dates, to spread harvest (using a mechanical harvester which shakes the fruit free) across about six weeks from early in the new year.

McFarlane says his varieties aren’t chosen by accident, but to suit the taste profile and other parameters Barkers looks for.

Donkers gives away no details but hints at a new cane fruit soon to come to market with McFarlane’s help.

“The beauty of what we’re trying to do as a business is work closely with growers like Hamish so that we can look at our future,” she says. “Collaboration is key as we move forward.”

Sustainability important

It is important for Barkers to partner with responsible caretakers of the land, says Barkers’ chief commercial officer, Nicky Donkers.

“Regarding our brand and transparency, people want to know where their food is coming from and how it is grown.”

That is why Barkers recently partnered with Irrigation NZ and others, to put on an interactive display that went to the Ashburton A&P Show (where it won an award for the best small trade site) and the New Zealand Agricultural Show (Canterbury). The display aimed to inform people of the very wide use of irrigation in all sectors including horticulture.

“It’s fair to say that water and dairying get a lot of ‘air time’,” Donkers told Hort News

“But that’s only part of what water is actually used for in NZ. People may not realise that it’s an important contributor to growing great food. It’s one component, along with location, great natural light and sunshine, and general care. 

“People see our products on the shelf or consume them in a cafe but may not be aware of where some of them originated so let’s trace it back to where it all begins,” she said.

Responsible use of the land by its suppliers is important for Barkers.

“Even though farmers from time to time get criticised for what they do, most farmers are doing an amazing job caring for the land, wanting to leave it in great shape for the next generation. We want to make sure we’re working with responsible partners in growing fruit because our brand is at stake as well.”

McFarlane’s farm has had an approved farm environment plan (FEP) for the past five years. He is also chair of the Orari Temuka Opihi Pareora water zone committee.

A wet spring meant very little irrigation in the early part of this season, but most years he will irrigate, by dripline, pivot or gun. 

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