Sweet taste of summer on way

SITTING at the junction of the road between the Derwent Valley, the Central Highlands and the South-Western Wilderness is a berry farm producing huge quantities of fruit ripe for picking and juicing for a staple drink of many a Tasmanian pantry.

Westerway Raspberry farm is a 35ha plot that populates the land between Gordon River Road and the Tyenna River, making up part of a number of farms in the region owned by the Clark Family.

Alongside their operations in sheep, cattle and cropping, berry growing for the Clarks first started some 50 years ago.

The family initially started growing blackcurrants before the scope was expanded to supply raspberries to Cascade for its fruit syrup range.

Those berries were picked and sold by Robert to put him through university, something that was replicated by his son Richard, who today heads proceedings at Westerway alongside his brother, Tom.

A walk through the orchard will show blackberries, redcurrants, blueberries, silvan berries, jostaberries, tayberries, boysenberries and strawberries amongst the rows, totalling well over 200 tonnes of produce each season for the fresh and frozen market.

Sitting at the front of the vast orchards is the farm café, which provides a storefront for handpicked berries while also offering a pick-your-own experience for eager customers in their 1ha front paddock, which hosts the majority of the berry diversity.

“It’s early in the summer and already the rows are so busy with people coming in to pick, it’s a sort of summer tradition for people, Richard Clark said.

“It’s amazing, 5 per cent of the farm can account for 80 per cent of the revenue, especially during times like COVID where, in my opinion, there wasn’t many safer activities to do than pick fruit with a density of 10,000 square metres per person.”

Beyond the front paddock, behind the rows of poplar trees sit the real nuts and bolts of the operations, thousands of rows of raspberries and blackcurrants that are mechanically harvested for consumer markets, making their way to concentrates for use in syrups, ice cream and much more.

Harvesting the berries is a trio of unique machines purchased from the United States, automatically steering for picking and gathering their way along the rows not dissimilar to a vertical combine.

A new cool room has increased storage capacity six-fold, giving the operation more freedom in where and when their crop can be transported, juiced or frozen, a relief considering some crops like blackcurrants come on suddenly, and must be harvested within the week.

“I find that experiences are the way of our future, but that has to be underpinned by good commercial arrangements.

“For us, that is with our processes where we mechanically harvest our fruits and supply bulk quantities to the likes of Juicy Isle.”

It’s commercial arrangements like these that produce Westerway’s most iconic product.

Up until a few years ago, they supplied the blackcurrants for Cascade’s Ultra C blackcurrant juice for many years.

They have re-acquired the original recipe to produce it once more alongside Juicy Isle after it was discontinued.

“It was a turbulent decade for blackcurrants, so it’s great to see the fruit and the juice returning to the state.”

This season has been one of unique challenges on the Westerway vines and bushes.

Where the rains that have caused so much grief to so many producers this spring not having a major effect on the berries, the dearth of warm weather and a number of strong winds are a causing a problem.

“We had 100km/h winds that knocked off a lot of our blackcurrants and blueberries a week or two back, as well as damaging the raspberries, we might have lost 10 to 15 per cent of our crop in a week.

“On top of that, this season there’s been a lot of cold overnight temperatures, getting down to three, four degrees overnight in mid-to-late November, which is ridiculous,” Mr Clark said.

“While we’re not seeing a lot of frost, it’s not been far off, and that’s just held everything back.

“Fortunately, with berries we are able to still run in a late season if we get heat in the middle of the summer, it will help the everything along.”

“A question that’s been on everybody’s mind is ‘will you have raspberries for Christmas.’

“Luckily, even without favourable weather to push them along, berries tend to say, ‘enough is enough, it’s time to fruit’.

“I’ve got to say in my 25 years of doing this, we’ve not missed Christmas yet, we won’t this year either.”