Australia: Crate expectations: blueberry boom on north coast as big banana industry slips away
March 27, 2013

Coffs Harbour, home of the Big Banana for nearly 50 years, has been hiding its inner blueberry.

Bananas have been the linchpin of the mid-north coast Sikh community since the late 1800s, but the proud farmers have been quietly shifting their efforts to the small, indigo fruits increasingly touted for their health benefits. ''Bananas are in my blood,'' Paramjit Sidhu said with some nostalgia. ''[But] because bananas are not viable any more, we're diversifying into other crops.''

Mr Sidhu's father celebrates 60 years in the Australian banana industry this year and his son and grandsons continue to work the same steep, green land above Woolgoolga that he first cultivated all those decades ago. These days, however, most of the family's income derives from blueberries.

The NSW north coast is responsible for 88 per cent of the rapidly-expanding blueberry production nationwide.

Although the Australian industry began in Victoria in the mid-1970s, it was not until ''low-chill'' varieties from Florida in the US were adapted to suit warmer climes that commercial growing took off.

In 2005, the farm-gate value of blueberries in Australia was $27 million annually, according to NSW Department of Primary Industries horticulturist Phillip Wilk. By 2012, that figure had swelled to $87 million.

''That includes the total Australian crop and you've got 88 per cent on the north coast,'' he said.

The antioxidant-rich fruit is so successful on the state's north coast, it has overtaken macadamias as the region's agricultural claim to fame, Mr Wilk said.

And, according to Kamaldeep Singh-Clair, the general manager of Oz Berries, it had breathed new life into the Woolgoolga community, which had been hit hard by the rise of the Queensland banana.

''Blueberries were just a gift,'' he said. ''They are so much closer in the whole community because of blueberries.''

Blueberries are worth $18 million to the region annually because related businesses, in transport and farming supplies, for example, had grown up around it, Mr Singh-Clair said. In 2008, there were 25 people working in the Oz Berries packing house - supplied by 70 local farms - in the Woolgoolga industrial estate off the Pacific Highway.

But this season, he was able to employ 100. As the industry grows, so too does the number and longevity of job opportunities - from farms and greenhouses to the packing house, he said.