Berry delicious

Couple’s challenging journey to become a chemical free berry farm
North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
WEB_bimbimbi_berries2_pe_c6_20180327
HARVEST: Nina and Andrew Meiers have planted more than 15,000 strawberries at their Barjarg farm, and they plan to plant another 15,000, hoping to become reliable producers of organic blueberries and raspberries at their farm Bimbimbi Berry Delicious.

IN 2016, Nina and Andrew Meiers planted 3500 blueberries, 15,000 strawberries and 600 raspberry canes at their new farm in Barjarg – their hearts set on establishing an organic farm.

It has not been an easy road – frosts decimated the blueberries in 2017, in December their greenhouse roof was ripped apart by wind and half the raspberry crop was lost, and then there was trouble with finding a commercial market.

But despite the setbacks, the hard work and the heartache, going into the berry business has been the best decision the Meiers ever made.

Bimbimbi Berry Delicious was the culmination of extensive market research and a lifelong dream.

“We knew we wanted to live in the country, but were very specific about what we wanted,” Nina explained.

Finding 30 acres just outside of Mansfield, with vast views across Lake Nillahcootie, the pair staked it all on their adventurous project.

Long term, the vision is to be a productive, chemical free berry farm with a focus on blueberries.

Short term, the Meiers are keyed in on getting strawberries out of the ground and onto the table.

“After planting, it takes about 12 weeks and you then have something to sell,” Andrew explained.

“Blueberries will be our key business, but they can take up to three years to produce – so putting in strawberries is a good short term investment strategy.”

One of the challenges that became immediately apparent to the Meiers was the decision to go chemical free.

All berries need a certain kind of soil type – Nina points out wryly that strawberries and blueberries need almost the opposite in soil nutrition, just to make it harder – but to keep an organic approach to farming sends prices rocketing.

“Simply put, you’re much more hands-on with the whole growing process, monitoring plant health, when you are chemical free,” Andrew said.

“We decided early on we would do everything without chemicals, and no soil fumigation

“Finding organic fertiliser isn’t easy either, but now that we have found the right supplier we have developed a very comprehensive plan for all types of crops we might grow.”

The payoff is a Bimbimbi Farm strawberry tastes like a traditional strawberry should – rich, juicy and with a lingering sweetness.

Handpicked every morning, Nina has found selling through her Facebook page surprisingly successful, and found the official farmers markets run through the Victorian Farmers Markets Association to be the best place to sell produce.

“I can’t believe how many people want to buy them, and are willing to pay that little bit extra for organic fruit,” she said.

“Because they’re eating fruit that is less than 24 hours from picking to consuming, the tastes like it should.”

Strawberries have three flushes of fruit – spring, autumn and at Christmas.

“We’re focussing on the spring and autumn crops, leaving the Christmas season for the bulk of the market – we take advantage of growing with all the North Victorian sunshine, right up until May,” Nina said.

“In season, some days I might have 50 kilos of strawberries, and other days I might have 200 kilos – but eventually we’ll be picking over 1000 kilos a week at peak production.

“It’s short, sharp and busy at peak times.”

This year will also see Bimbimbi receive their official In Organic Conversion number from OFC (The Organic Food Chain).

“We have customers lined up to buy already – there is definitely a demand for clean produce,” Nina said.

There have been bridges to overcome with making the strawberries commercially viable in a supermarket setting – chemical free comes at a cost.

There has also been hurdles with finding a price point that reflects not only the hard work but also goes some way to covering the cost of weather events.

“When we had rain in November, we lost about 9000 punnets of strawberries – it was devastating,” Nina said.

“When the greenhouse roof blew off in December, we lost our summer raspberries.

Bimbimbi Berry Delicious raspberries

“We had to pay people to come and pick the fruit to throw it out; but we ended up with sensational fruit in the next flush, so fortunately there was a good side to the loss.”

Victoria produces a third of all strawberries grown in the country.

What the Meiers have over the competition is their soon to be organic certification.

“We planted another 8000 strawberries last season, and have another 7000 being planted in May – so we will enter the organic market with 30,000 plants,” Nina said.

“Still very small in the big strawberry market, but for organic fruit, it’s enough to get us recognised as a reliable source.

“Fifteen thousands feels like a lot of plants when you are out there at 6am picking – at 30,000, it will be beyond just the two of us, so we’ll be looking for local help as our business grows.”

What is refreshing about both Nina and Andrew is their down to earth and honest approach to farming.

Happy to admit they are “learning on their feet,” the pair also joke with each other – Andrew labels Nina an optimist when she talks about massive berry yields, and Nina labels him pessimistic when talking about the threat of frost and damaging hail.

“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking on a project like this as a way to strengthen your marriage,” Nina laughed.

“You have to be patient, because everyone has different ideas.

“We grew amazing watermelon and cantaloupe last season, another idea, but we decided that we’re only producing berries from now on.

“We want to be known as the best of the best.”

Nina is also about to launch her first podcast series, called The Farm Food Health Podcast.

The focus will be on the relationship between farming, food and its impact on health.

If you would like more information on Bimbimbi Farm go to the webpage at www.bimbimbi.com.au, or visit the Facebook page of the same name or email [email protected]

More farming news and stories can be read in the April, 2018 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.