John’s found his thrill on his blueberry hill

BUILT from humble beginnings as a retirement hobby, Mountain River Blueberries has quickly found its feet in the organic food market, becoming one of the must-visit stalls at produce markets.

John Karagiannakis started his working life as an electrician, later became a teacher before working in training development and consultancy for a number of years. It was on the suggestion of his friend and neighbour that saw him shift his career a little closer to home.

The Karagiannakis family property is nestled between Mt Wellington and Collins Bonnet, overlooking the Huon Valley. When John first moved to the farm in 1986, plans to turn the 40 hectares into a working farm were always at the back of his mind. But it wasn’t berries on the top of the list. “I had a farm which wasn’t making any income, my idea was originally cattle, but we’ve got a lot of bushlands here and it’s not something I want to clear in my retirement,” John said.

It was on the suggestion of John’s neighbour and friend, Tony, that he try his luck at blueberries, something he found success growing in the Huon soils. “In many ways he’s been my mentor, he’s helped me all the way along, but I also blame all the stress on him too.”

Starting less than five years ago with an initial ‘trial’ crop, visible from the kitchen window, John has built his orchard up to boast around 3500 plants across 3Ha, growing Legacy and Brigitta varieties. Last season’s harvest pulled in 1.5 tonnes that was hand-picked with the help of a few locals. It’s likely to have been represent the last season before berry production really moves into the next gear. “We pruned the season before last, so while it was a pretty reasonable season, we’re building everything up to expect around 4 tonne this coming season, and that will keep on growing exponentially,” John said. “We’ve picked up so quickly from where we started, and it’s looking like we’ll have a massive jump this coming season.”

That massive jump has come on the back of strong support from their market customers, with the Mountain River Blueberries difficult to keep on the shelves at farmers markets in Tasmania and Sydney, where they sell alongside Tony’s crop. “We go for the gourmet market which we’ve achieved through the consistency and size of our berries,” John said. “When we pick, it’s always about picking the ripest fruit at the time, not about cleaning the orchard.”

This is accomplished by what John likes to call ‘tickling’, whereby the fruit is picked by feel, what feels plump and soft in the hands, and easily plucks from the branches comes off. What stays on the branch is ‘re-tickled’ in a few days’ time. “You get a feel for it when you’re picking, when you grab a bunch of fruit, you actually feel the ripe fruit as you tickle through it through hands,” he said. “What lands in your palm is on sale at the market before long.”

Between large punnets and their frozen stock, John has formed a steady supply for his loyal customer base, and more than justifies his fanbase with his biologically-grown and ‘naturally protected’ crops. “We work on growing and presenting our produce as organically as possible.” Alongside their wallaby, possum and rabbit-proof fence, they’ve enlisted the help of Zeppy, the family dog, who is more than willing to chase down any brave wildlife.

The future for the Mountain River Berries is all about reinforcing the supply and ethos of their product. John is working on training sheep to trim the grass between the orchard rows, while infrastructure is being developed to further plan for the growth in the next season and beyond.