SMALL scale producers have to be niche to survive and, according to Wade and Nicky Mann, jumbo-sized, drip-fed blueberries could provide their business some sweet success.
The couple, who run Roses 2 Go from two 3000 square metre greenhouses at Warnervale on the Central Coast, stand proudly among their new blueberry plants, which are unrecognisable from seedlings they received just six weeks earlier.
While they’ve met some opposition to their hydroponic method of growing, the Manns were keen to quash the myths.
They say “hydroponics” isn’t a dirty word, it doesn’t involve feeding plants with a “toxic bottle”, nor does it happen in a seedy dark room with bright lights.
Their hydroponic set up, which uses drip irrigation for fertigation and irrigation, using recycled water produced bumper crops supported by an “intravenous” drip in a state-of-the-art greenhouse.
“Hydroponic by its definition means ‘soilless cultivation’,” Mr Mann said.
The Manns use coco peat instead of soil, which they source from Sri Lanka. It’s biodegradable and comes in five kilogram compressed blocks.
Its selling point is its ability to retain moisture and air and Mr Mann said it holds almost six times its weight in water.
They recycle every drop of water possible, catching run off from guttering in the greenhouse, which feeds into holding tanks, where it is cleaned through sand filters.
As you can tell from their business name, growing blueberries is new to the Manns, who originally set up as hydroponic rose growers.
“Flowers are less important than food,” Mr Mann said.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Mr and Mrs Mann fled their farm 11 and a half years ago, and to meet visa requirements, rushed into starting their business in Australia.
“Because we had to flee our farm we didn’t do the level of investigation we should have.”
They battled in the wholesale market before settling into their own retail, and now have two shops and a web site.
However, Mr Mann said they could meet the demand for their hybrid roses with just one greenhouse and so they decided to grow blueberries.
Mr Mann’s father started the ball rolling at his farm in Gingin, Western Australia, and his blueberry trials have shown impressive potential.
“Field growers harvest about 250 grams a plant in the first year,” Mr Mann said.
“In year two it can be up to 500g a plant; in year three one kilogram and, for a good variety, year five could yield 5kg – it may go to 7.5kg.
“For us, year one would yield 1kg, year two would yield 5kg and in year three we are hoping to get 10kg.”
They received the blueberry variety from Mountain Blue Orchards, Lismore, just six weeks ago after lengthy negotiations and having to prove they could grow them successfully.
Mr Mann said some growers were cynical about hydroponic growing, saying it shortened the life cycle and “raped the crop”.
“I don’t care if they only last five years, because we want to keep up with varieties,” he said.
“You need to be getting those sorts of yields to make it valuable.”
He said while outdoor growers were more concerned with root development, the hydroponic set up didn’t require root stability to the same extent.
While Mr Mann said others claimed they were already growing blueberries hydroponically, he didn’t know of anyone else in Australia using coco peat in a multispan greenhouse, as opposed to tunnels.
The vents in the greenhouse move according to temperature and light allowing the Manns to control both. It’s kept at an average of 23 to 25 degrees.
The Manns hope to have 2400 plants in single rows.
“At present they are in double rows but once we move out the remaining roses, we will spread them out better,” Mr Mann said.
As part of the agreement with Mountain View Blueberries, the Manns are locked into a marketing agreement, though they have some varieties that they will be able to sell from their shops at Warnervale (Woongarah) and East Gosford.
The Manns learned quickly through their rose business, one of the biggest costs is labour, therefore, they are trying to produce a bigger berry to reduce the cost.
“Though we have to be careful we don’t compromise on taste,” Mrs Mann said.
As well as a potentially bigger fruit, the Manns hope their growing method will give them a longer season.