Blueberry pioneer gives back to world’s farmers

Blueberry pioneer gives back to world’s farmers


Business
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Memories of growing up in one of Melbourne’s poorest suburbs fuels Ridley Bell to give back.

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Ridley Bell, who introduced the blueberry to Australia in 1976, in northern Uganda where his family carry out charitable work with World Vision.

Ridley Bell, who introduced the blueberry to Australia in 1976, in northern Uganda where his family carry out charitable work with World Vision.

A CHILDHOOD spent living in poverty in Melbourne is driving the grandfather of Australia’s blueberry industry to give back to the global agricultural community. 

Having introduced the first blueberry to Australia in 1976, Lismore grower and businessman Ridley Bell has gone on to build a blueberry empire based on fresh berries and a wholesale nursery.

Today his business, Mountain Blue Farms, supplies one million blueberry plants a year to customers in five continents. It also produces 1000 tonnes of blueberries for the domestic and international market.

As his fortunes have grown, so too has his desire to give back. This week Mr Bell announced he would donate five cents from every punnet of Mountain Blue Farm’s Eureka blueberries sold at Coles. The money will be donated to World Vision to run programs to educate some of the world’s poorest farmers.

Education programs will centre on improving soil quality, irrigation and boosting yield in order to produce enough food for some of the world’s poorest communities.

Mr Bell’s youngest daughter Natalie Bell, who is the sales and marketing director for the family business, said her father’s passion for helping others in need stems from his own childhood.

“He tells stories about growing up in the poorest family in the poorest street in Melbourne. Now, where he sees an opportunity to change others lives he takes it,” she said.

The Bell family business (which also includes Mr Bell’s children Georgina Upton, who manages Mountain Blue Farm’s packing shed; Terry Upton, who runs harvest and Andrew Bell, who heads corporate relations) has worked with World Vision since 2012. Fifteen per cent of every license deal signed for the use of Mountain Blue Farms blueberry genetics goes toward projects to improve women and children’s health in northern Uganda. To date more than $1.2 million has been invested. 

Also, the Bell family gives generously in their local community of Lismore by supporting a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

“I have seen with my business how a farm can not only provide income for my family but opportunities for many others,” Mr Bell said. 

“When I visited World Vision’s projects, I saw farmers doing back-breaking work and struggling to generate enough income to support their family. But with the right support to improve their soil quality, infrastructure and yield, these farmers can not only provide for their families but deliver jobs and opportunities for their entire community to escape poverty.”

The development of the Bell’s Eureka variety of blueberry, which took place in 2008, has led to an explosive growth phase at Mountain Blue Farms. In 2012 the family purchased a second farm at Tubulam in the Northern Rivers district to grow the extra large variety. This year’s berry harvest will require 1000 hands on deck, up from 80 in 2011.

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