The $350 million blueberry industry in the Coffs Harbour district is just 35 years old and is experiencing growing pains for the first time, hit by drought and less attractive prices.
After a meteoric rise, with incredible returns off farms sometimes only an acre in size, the business of making a living from the sweet berry has become more like the rest of farming - a bit hit and miss.
Hand picked fruit results in 65 per cent of returns going to wages and there are times of the year when punnets sell for a break-even price.
At Coffs Harbour, encroaching suburbia and competition for land has created squabbles over chemicals and waterways but farmers say the debate is misinformed, with pollution from new housing posing a greater danger to fish than fruit.
Until the Coffs coast received up to 180mm last week some growers in the Woolgoolga area were in real trouble over a lack of stored water on farm for irrigation, and fertigation. Some cut their production bushes to the ground in a bid to save them from drought stress.
At the same time, 40 per cent of employees in the local berry industry are out of work while they wait for rain.
last year's total was just 60 per cent of its average 1600mm, or 900mm at Coffs Harbour airport. Further north at Woolgoolga that total was more like 600mm, says Peter McPherson, president of Berries Australia and Costas general manager of its berries division.
In November fires made a run for the ocean, forcing growers on coast range to evacuate.
"This is a really abnormal period in the industry's history," Mr McPherson said.
"In the longer term we need to plan for water security. Growers need to look at ways and means to tap into recycled water. It's up the grower to decide if they have enough storage to get through times like this."
For a local industry that delivers $300 to $350 million to the farm gate every year, out of which more than half go to wages, town businesses remain highly exposed to agriculture's bad hand.
In a bid to assist, the Coffs Harbour City Council recently voted to urgently request NSW Government to alter licence conditions on the dormant Woolgoolga dam to allow nearly half its unused capacity, or 100 mega litres, to be shared equally among needy producers.
Blueberry grower Kellie Potts, Sandy Beach is immune from the drought risk, with access to treated town water. There is no shortage of supply from the Coffs Harbour City treatment works at Woolgoolga.
However there is an issue with residue salts from chlorine and its use requires careful management.
As blueberries are an acid loving plant, sitting comfortably at 5.5pH, aluminium toxicity can rear its problematic head. Mrs Potts has invested in many organic inputs for her soil like humic and fulvic acids, extracted from brown coal, which work to deliver nutrients, applied as a liquid through the dripline at a rate of 14 litres per hectare every week.
In the long term we need to plan for water security. Growers need to tap into recycled water.
Plants are watered three times a week and dosed with diatomaceuous earth to boost silica content, applied by hand. Nutrients levels of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium and boron are delivered in a balanced way through the dripline.
Mrs Potts also brews her own fungus and bacteria, although she says the fungus struggles to survive low pH. Nevertheless they are essential in feeding a good soil.
"Farming with these biologicals can help your plants in times of stress," she says.
A fourth generation farmer Mrs Potts' agricultural legacy was in cattle before horticulture, her family - the Featherstones - originally holding 2000 acres at Upper Corindi. These days she farms 15 acres with 14,000 blueberry bushes under nets using precise fertigation. She has enthusiastically embraced the science of biologically farming the soil and says its health is the central premise of her success.
Treating pickers exceptionally well also pays real dividends. This year the district crop is well down, so there are plenty of people willing to spend a day in the warm sun picking berries by hand. Last year was a good crop and pickers were hard to find but Ms Potts was able to harvest her berries on time - retaining staff through good work practices and genuine kindness.
"My pickers are dedicated," she says. "They have always been special to me."
The mostly South Korean and Japanese crew on her farm are contracted to work for each three or four day picking event and benefit from gummy snakes and ice cold soda all day long, with a light beer an Aussie treat at the end of the 7.5 hour day.
An experiment in pollination using native bees, which are small enough to crawl into the tiny blueberry flower, have proven exceptionally successful and her summer-bearing Rabbit Eye varieties are loaded with fruit; each bush capable of 14kg at end of harvest.
Many growers have struggled with older plants, and typically replace them with new varieties after year seven. Second generation plantings have sometimes struggled with soil borne issues like phytopthora. Mrs Potts says the use of humic acid and biological additives have buffered her plants against those problems, with bushes now approaching 13 years old and still producing prolific berries.
- Native bee pollination field day, Sandy Beach Feb 10, 9am. Ph 0423 776 255.