The fast-growing blueberry industry is currently working through a particularly galling growing pain after university studies on coastal creeks near Coffs Harbour found nitrogen and phosphorous pollution comparable to that in rivers flowing through China, India and Europe.
In those cases, like on the Mid North Coast, peri-urban agriculture was to blame.
Now, $3.7 million in government funding to tackle whole of environment strategies, distributed through DPI through the recently released Marine Estate Management Strategy, will soon be formally announced and might help blueberries clean up their act.
The Clean Catchment Program will run for two years and seeks to resolve pollution sources which might impact on the Solitary Islands Marine Park.
It will be a similar program to those being rolled out onshore from the Great Barrier Reef.
Alex Smith, executive officer of the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, is hoping the funding will help trial appropriate fertiliser application rates for the many different kinds of blueberries grown on the Coffs coast.
“We have so many varieties grown here,” he said. “We need to test these to see how much fertiliser they need. It is a business economic strategy as much as an environmental one.”
Indeed there is little money to waste on a blueberry crop, with the hand-picked fruit gobbling up labour costs at harvest. Until export licences can be granted for the domestically popular fruit to go to Japan and China, too many blueberries at peak times, like in a normal October, can see prices fall below $19 for a tray of a dozen punnets, making them unviable.
“No farmer in their right mind would want to dump fertiliser down the drain,” said Mr Smith.
“But the fact of the matter is a lot of these farmers are using application rates advised by the USDA and printed in 1985. Australia has the best blueberry varieties in the world and they also require different rates of fertiliser which is why we need to do trials on those varieties to find the right rate.”
There are 300 blueberry producing farm families in the Coffs Harbour area – many of whom were once banana growers – and they know how to make do when prices fall and are likely to survive unlike more rigid company structures.
“We are not talking about corporations here,” said Mr Smith.
“We are talking about small business and families that can run a farm off the smell of an oily rag.
“But as an industry we don’t want these guys cutting corners or not listening to the right environmental advice.”
Mr Smith said it didn’t help that fines for polluting were low and that there were no provisions for restoring environmental damage.
As far as complaints about excessive water use and illegal water theft, Mr Smith denied the allegations.
“Blueberries are not big users of water,” he said. “We believe 90 per cent of growers – and these are small growers, not corporations – want to adopt good practice and once they know it they will stick with it but there are always 10 per cent who say “I can get away with that”.
As an industry we don’t want these guys cutting corners or not listening to the right environmental advice.
“We are working with government agencies to enforce the rules. We won’t defend growers who do the wrong thing.”
Meanwhile, Local Lands Services have acted on the suggestion of a Coffs Harbour City Council environment officer in trialing wood chip “bioreactors” to help mop up excess nutrient run-off. The woodchip is buried under stone rubble, which stays put during the sort of massive rain events this region is known for. Nitrogen-hungry fungi, living in the cellulose fibres of the wood chip, are doing the hard work.
The concept, proven overseas, has already been used to mop up nutrients flowing out of pineapple farms in Queensland.
To date four of the five Woolgoolga farms affecting the coastal Hearnes Lake have put bioreactors in place.
Recent studies on waterways flowing towards the sea and also away to the west, carried out by Southern Cross University and funded by Coffs Harbour City Council, uncovered excessive nutrient runoff in creeks and in coastal lagoons coming from blueberry farms.
Citizen rangers first alerted the council to a potential problem, with impact on wildlife and amenity the main drivers.
The report came up with some damning conclusions with key findings showing a spike in nitrate levels in the vicinity of blueberries.
“High loads of nitrogen will drive eutrophication and alter the ecological communities particularly in enclosed waterways such as Hearnes Lake,” stated the report’s authors.
“Phosphorus enrichment increased by nine-fold and sediment fluxes by over forty fold during the expansion of blueberry cultivation within the catchment since 2002.
“Nutrient loads in Double Crossing Creek reflected the fertiliser intensive land uses upstream and subsequent runoff during rain events. Nitrous Oxide loads in rain were 695 fold greater than the dry period. These loads were amongst the highest reported for catchments on the East Coast of Australia, and similar to loads in rivers throughout China, Europe and India with strong agricultural or urban influences.
“Our nitrogen dioxide emissions estimates are some of the highest ever described for global aquatic systems.
“Assuming that our 66 days of observations represent an annual average, and that farmers use the recommended fertiliser dose, the calculated fertiliser loss to waterways would potentially be about 20 per cent of applied fertiliser.”
Food sabotage - whose responsibility, farmer or retailer?
Along with environmental issues like nutrient run-off, the emerging blueberry industry is also grappling with a threat that is well beyond the control of the farmer – food sabotage.
In the wake of the needles-in-strawberries scare, the blueberry industry now has to look at ways it can mitigate risks to the consumer.
Alex Smith, Blueberry Association of Australia, said it was now a priority to map the entire supply chain – a job the industry was already doing in its quest to get fruit into Asian markets like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
But on the domestic front Mr Smith says the blueberry industry needs to take the lead from other sectors, like the beef industry, where beef in boxes is traceable through blockchain technology, and which are transported in locked trucks.
“This food sabotage could have happened to an apple or a pear or potatoes but now that’s happened we have to map where the risk lies and where to apply tamper proof packaging,” he said.
The problem is made more complicated by the fact that consumers want less plastic and more sustainable packaging and yet the reality of a tamper-proof punnet involves a lot more plastic. And then there is the need for breathing holes to prevent sweating.
“Food safety issues like salmonella are the responsibility of the grower but food tampering can come anywhere along the supply chain. When does the retailer take responsibility?”
“We are being pushed hard to come up with sustainable packaging but at the same time are being pushed to come up with a tamper proof package.”