Blueberries satisfy life aspirations

Fletcher Riley (9, left), Zara Riley (6) and Theo Gleeson (10) pick their own blueberries. Photos: George Clark
Fletcher Riley (9, left), Zara Riley (6) and Theo Gleeson (10) pick their own blueberries. Photos: George Clark
It may have taken three years but investments do pay off, Blueberry Haven owners Robyn McDonald and Mike Coombes say.

The couple moved from Otago to South Canterbury six years ago in hopes of a change in lifestyle.

Since then, the former dental therapist and engineer have built a successful blueberry farm just outside Temuka.

Robyn McDonald shows off a crop.
Robyn McDonald shows off a crop.
‘‘We had looked at buying the business a couple of years before but missed out. It went back on the market, we had a look and thought, ‘Oh this could be our lifestyle change’’ said Mrs McDonald, who remained working part-time in their first year of business.

‘‘This is our third summer season. The first year was a bit slow, we had employees coming to pick up and package then had to move them on ... which wasn’t easy,’’ Mrs McDonald said.

‘‘Now 90% of people will come and pick their own. So far so great, three times more people than last year.’’

Blueberries need a lot of sun and plenty of shelter, with the ability to handle severe frosts, up to -12degC they are quite self sustainable.

‘‘Five or six kilograms is the average amount grown on each plant but they are tremendously easy to pick. They literally roll off your finger.’’

The 1550 plants are spread under mesh nets with automatic water feeding and different variations of sweetness. The pre-established big plants are 10 years old and producing yearly, while Mr Coombes has been busy already this year planting smaller crops for harvesting in four years.

‘‘Its not necessarily about the money in this instance, we have tried to create an experience. Families come here, kids pick blueberries for Christmas ... it is really cool watching a different type of family day out.’’

Mr Coombes and Mrs McDonald want to keep providing a novel, healthy day out to the community around them.

‘‘Geraldine preschool and Chipmunks after-school care programmes come to us occasionally. Big burly truck drivers come in by themselves and find a bit of tranquillity in the picking. Grandmothers come with grandchildren.’’

Mr Coombes is a bit of a handyman and still works three days as an engineer at Southern Jet. He has set up a B&B just beside the blueberry patches, along with magnetic fences and automated hosing to make the site more user-friendly.

‘‘The previous owners planted all of the blueberries and gave us a bit of a plan of what to do and when to do it. The hardest part is the pruning which can take 20-odd days.’’

The team share their superfruit with Amore Wholefoods Market and Sopheze Cafe in Timaru as well as selling friends’ cherries, in trade for the sale of their blueberries.

With no plans to expand just yet, the blueberry business remains sweet enough.

‘‘Our boys want the place but they can’t have it yet,’’ laughed Mrs McDonald.

‘‘We might try our hand in raspberries but we’re loyal to the blueberries.’’

-By George Clark

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