Little black berry that spiced up a couple’s life

IT is a thriving orchard that all started from a plant washed up in rain. Nestled between the Kermandie River and the very edge of native bushland that stretches uninterrupted through the Hartz Mountains to the coast, Tasmanian Pepper Co has cultivated a brilliant orchard among the rolling green hills of Geeveston.

Founders Abby and Josh McKibben are building a strong foundation using one of Tasmania’s most revered, yet scarcely grown products, the Tasmanian Pepperberry. It may well be the proximity to nature that has seen the notoriously difficult-to-harness plants, which typically grow in cool temperate forests, thrive on the McKibben’s land.

The journey started when Josh came across a pepperberry plant brimming with berries on his parents’ property in Geeveston, washed from its roots by recent floods. Josh took a cutting from the plant and with care and attention, propagated the branch into a thriving plant. It was the start of their nursery which is now home to approximately 3500 trees and 13 different varieties.

Re-purposing land that was once used for an apple orchard, Josh and Abby took care in revitalising soil that was scarce of nutrients and prone to waterlogging and made it a haven for their plants. “It’s taken a lot of years in getting the biology of the soil right, but it’s starting to improve a lot. We grow our trees using organic practices, we don’t use any chemicals, no fertilizers, we use a lot of compost-tea to build the probiotics up for our trees,” Mr McKibben said. “It basically builds bacteria in the soil. Since we’ve been doing that, we’ve seen the soil structure improve and it’s been draining better and holding moisture in the summer too.”

In contrast to the careful cultivation and pruning on the site, the harvest of the late summer berries is not dissimilar to how they have been foraged by indigenous populations for thousands of years, plant-by-plant, branch-by-branch. “We lay out plastic on the ground to catch the berries as we pick, but we can’t shake the trees and we can’t mechanically harvest them. It’s certainly a time-consuming job.”

Once picked, Tasmanian Pepper Co typically have their berries dried, where they are either sold locally to chefs or gourmet food makers, or into their pepperberry salt and leaf mixes, which they sell online. “It’s a big outlay from harvest to selling. Four kilograms of berries dries up to one kilogram of the dried berry that we sell, so you can image it takes a while to process a harvest.” With the growing and harvesting well established on the property, plans are underway to develop an agritourism attraction with accommodation and farm tours, but not before the orchards are expanded. “We’ve got 3ha of bush across the river, as well as 12ha on this side. We’re looking to start planting trees in there soon.”

Josh and Abby have been experimenting with trees planted under the canopy of the native bush that surrounds their orchards, keeping an eye on the growth in different conditions, as well as the plants relationship with the local wildlife. “We actually open the gates to the orchard for a few weeks at a time and we check the plants during the day. The wallabies prefer to trim the grass first but when they’re sick of that they move on to the plant leaves, that’s when we close the gate.”

They’re also exploring the potential for further uses of the product. “We’re looking to diversify in the next few years. “There’s uses for the leaves in cosmetics, spirits and in essential oils. It means if we have plants that are producing far more leaves than berries, we can still make the most of them.”

As the productivity increases with experience, the seasons ahead are looking increasingly busy on the Geeveston farm, and with a growing consumer base and an ever-reliance on supply from food-makers in the state, there looks to be plenty of room to grow for the couple.