Summer brings with it a bountiful berry harvest – strawberries, raspberries and berries black and blue. In Victoria, Aussie Farmers Direct works with 16 farmers who, six years ago, formed a collective to bring their beautiful, premium berries from farm to you.
Victoria’s Yarra Valley is home to many of these berry farmers, and it’s a region that supplies a third of Australia’s strawberries. Its fertile, red volcanic soils and a mild climate provide a stellar environment to grow a whole range of berries, but it is their strawberries and raspberries that we’ve taken quite a shining to at Aussie Farmers Direct.
Berry Farming in the Yarra Valley, Victoria
John Stewart and his wife Jola operate their berry farm at Wandin East in the Yarra Valley. Both worked on their respective family farms – John’s in cut flowers, Jola’s in strawberries – but it was the heart shaped berry that won theirs, with the couple choosing a life growing sensational strawberries over snapdragons and sunflowers. They have now been in the business together for twenty years.
Their 12-hectare farm produces around 500,000 punnets of strawberries each year, but this season has been a bit touch and go. It starts in the middle of October and goes right through until mid May, but so far this year the unseasonable, erratic weather has presented lots of rain and heavy winds, which break the fragile plants. Thankfully, strawberries are a crop that can regenerate pretty quickly, taking around two months to get back on track to produce more fruit.
The key element of strawberry growing to get absolutely right is the picking. A well-ripened berry will be the sweetest, containing the maximum amount of natural sugars, and that is what John is looking for. Unlike some other fruits, strawberries don’t sweeten after they are picked, which is why the picking timing is critical. John tells this by the colour – a bright, luscious red that hasn’t gone too dark. Plus the all-important taste test.
Fresh Australian Strawberries
There are only a couple of strawberry varieties that prevail in the Australian industry, but John is at the forefront of exploring other varieties that are sweeter and more productive. At his trial nursery he is growing different strawberry varieties that originally hail from England, Spain and the USA, to see how they fare in the Australian climate. It is 18 months in quarantine, plus the same amount of time growing in a designated farm before these species can be released for trial purposes. It then takes up to four years for the fruit to be tested and grown before they produce fruit in the quantities needed for our enjoyment. There is a Californian variety in particular showing a lot of promise that has got John pretty excited.
This whole process greatly appeals to John. He studied Botany and it’s this interest coupled with a natural curiosity that feeds his appreciation for the science of agriculture. He delights in the opportunity he has to research and explore, and says bringing one of these new varieties to market will be an immensely fulfilling milestone in his life as a farmer. “I also love the challenge of man versus nature,” says John.
Interestingly, Australians aren’t big berry eaters. In America, it is the largest growing fresh produce category, and they are buying berries by the bucket load due to their wonderful health benefits. Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, and also feature Manganese, an essential nutrient that acts as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inﬂammatory agent. They are also great for eye health and contain anticancer properties. Potassium, Vitamin K and Magnesium in strawberries are also important for bone health.
Pick Your Own Berries
John not only grows berries for Aussie Farmers Direct. He also has a ‘pick your own’ business, where berry lovers can head to his farm and do the hard work themselves. John’s daughter Justine is now 15 years old, but every Sunday since the age of five she has had a prime role in teaching visitors how to select and pick ripe strawberries. She knows everything horticulturally about strawberry farming, but it is a skill that will likely remain a hobby – she’s much more interested in a career working with animals.
Now aged 61, John has no plans of retiring any time soon. “I’m still young enough to work hard and I am still enjoying it too much,” he says. As for his preference when it comes to enjoying strawberries, he loves ‘Matlaninka’, a Polish dessert his wife used to eat as a child. It combines pureed strawberries with icing sugar and cream. It is generally used as a topping over fresh fruit or ice cream, but being a sweet tooth, John polishes it off on its own.
Did You Know?
Strawberries are the only fruit to show off their tiny seeds on the outside, with, on average, 200 seeds. To enjoy the sweetest possible strawberry taste, here’s a little-known tip – eat them back to front! Instead of holding the calyx (its green leafy top), remove it and eat the wide end first, finishing off with the tip. The tip is the end that ripens first, which means you’re leaving eating the sweetest part until last!
Add Some Fresh Berries to Your Next Aussie Farmers Direct Home Delivery: AussieFarmers.com.au