Hothouse secrets of berries at the double

A MAJOR investment in hothouse technology will see a huge boost in blackberry production at one Tasmanian operation.

In what is an Australian first, Tasmania Berries has recently completed the first of two 2.5ha hothouse growing facilities on a farm near Exton in the state’s North.

Once completed, the farm will have 5ha of hothouse area focused on blackberry production. The business is run by Andrew Terry and his wife, Stephanie, who first ventured into berry production in 2014.

That year they started with 10ha of strawberries and purchased the Christmas Hills Raspberry farm, which they still own.

Investment in the new hothouses came after two seasons of trials working out the best methods for dual cropping in blackberries.

Essentially, dual cropping involves manipulating the black berry plants using cool storage and hothouse technology.

The aim is to trick the plants into producing more fruit at the beginning and end of what would be the traditional peak production period for black berries.

“It gives us early season and late season fruit, so it bulks the season out for us which also helps with labour as well,” Mr Terry said.

Traditionally, peak blackberry season in Tasmania would be from the start of January through until March.

With the hothouse production, Mr Terry said their production will kick off in mid-November and continue through until late May.

“What we do basically is put the plants in cool storage to make them think it’s winter and bring them out earlier and put them in the hothouse to make them think it’s spring,” he said.

The hothouses have a dual layered skin to maintain consistent temperatures and use hydroponic growing systems to feed and water the plants.

They also feature roof venting to control temperature and blower fans to manage humidity.

Mr Terry said they can manipulate conditions in the hothouses according to the plant needs at different times of the season.

While wet conditions have delayed the construction of the second hothouse, that will be finished by mid-next year.

Once completed, the hothouses will accommodate about 10,160 plants in each one.

“Under cover like this there’s no one else in Australia doing berries like this,” Mr Terry said.

“There’s some strawberries in glasshouses, but it’s more smaller scale and not blackberries being grown in a structure like this.”

Up until now, Mr Terry said blackberries, which “We basically want to try and double the production off the same area,” he said.

Mr Terry said he was excited by the opportunity to use new growing techniques and technology.

“For the business it helps to broaden out the shoulders of it too and give us more even production,” he said.

“When I first started, I thought hydroponics was going to be really hard and everything had to be exact, but it’s all about the law of averages.”

Across the hothouse everything is computer controlled, but Mr Terry said there is nothing like having people on the ground.

There are five agronomists employed across the business to help keep production on track.

Once the second hothouse is completed, blackberries will account for 30 per cent of the operation’s production area and 25 per cent of fruit volume.

Across the business now they have about 48ha under production with about 22ha of strawberries.

There are now plans to also establish 20ha of blueberries.

“We have some public varieties over there, but we’re going to grow them a bit more low tech, whereas this is high tech,” Mr Terry said.

Production at Tasmania Berries now kicks of at the beginning of November and runs right through until the end of May.

Tackling the labour challenges have been a crucial part of the business.

Over the season now the operation employs about 450 workers, many from the Pacific Islands of Timor Leste and Samoa.

“It has been challenging, but we’ve invested heavily in accommodation, so we’ve got the beds now for the guys,” he said.

Part of that investment has including refurbishing a hotel and establishing two bulk accommodation sites on farm, as well as a cottage in Deloraine.

Most of the workers return year after year, which Mr Terry said was their aim.

Water for the operation comes from the Meander Dam and Mr Terry said they have recently applied for more.