Fruits of Her Labour – Meet a Local Blueberry Farmer
We meet local blueberry grower Kellie Potts. Kellie shares with us why farming is wonderful for the soul, explains the connection between blueberries and bees and tells us why she was always going to work on the land.
Just a few minutes’ drive from the shoreline of beautiful Sandy Beach is where we meet Kellie Potts. Kellie lives on 30 acres of farmland with about half of her acreage dedicated to blueberry farming. I call by with my fruit obsessed nine-year-old son for whom the chance to wander through rows of blueberry bushes to find (and eat) the odd blueberry missed by the pickers that day was irresistible.
Kellie’s two children, both high schoolers, are the fifth generation to live on the land upon which we stand. The original family farm of 140 acres was purchased by Kellie’s great-grandmother during the Depression (Kellie’s siblings reside on neighbouring properties).
“Sentimentally, it’s a wonderful place to be,” she says. “I used to come here as a kid and spend time with my grandfather who farmed cattle. All I’ve ever loved is farming and I knew from a young age it was what I wanted to do. I completed my horticultural science degree right after school.”
Kellie feels blessed to do what she does. “It’s hard work but it’s also very satisfying. I love being outside every day, working with the earth and farming biologically.”
A community of growers
Kellie is part of a co-operative of approximately 150 local blueberry growers. The growers of the Coffs Coast account for an estimated 80% of the nation’s blueberries so while Coffs Harbour may have traditionally been renowned for its bananas, many of those same landholders who once produced bananas have moved onto blueberries. As a result, there’s every chance that that delicious punnet of blueberries you pop into your trolley each week is from a local farm.
I am curious to find out more about the co-op which is 100% farmer-owned. “We’re selling as one so we’re all in the same boat. I find everyone amazing and hard-working. We’re all committed to producing a high-quality product. We desire the post-harvest result to be that consumers enjoy beautiful fruit with a long shelf life. I genuinely want every farmer to be the best farmer they can be. I’m more than happy to share anything we find beneficial on our farm with other growers. The native bee workshop is a good example.”
Bees and blueberries
A few months ago, Kellie hosted a native bee workshop offering insight into a not-so-secret weapon she considers a game-changer. Many farmers use European bees to benefit their produce, but Kellie has found Australian native bees to be highly effective. “We’ve done a lot of work with Australian native bees and I just love them.”
Pollination means that there’s a direct proportion between the number of times a bee visits the flower of the blueberry bush and how large the berry is. “Berry size is everything,” Kellie explains as she opens a blueberry so I can look closely, “Not just for flavour for also for cost-effectiveness as we’re paid for our berries by weight.”
Kellie has been producing blueberries for several years now and while she farms all year round, there are two peak periods. ‘Summer’ is short and sharp and yields more fruit (about 14kg per bush) and extends from mid-December to the end of January.
Berries from the winter crop are picked over a longer period (now until November or so) but the yield is less; about 5-6kg per bush. Of course, market price and weather make for plenty of variables, but Kellie tries to adapt her farming practises to attain good results when prices are favourable. This is where her horticultural expertise and experience come into play.
Collectively, local blueberry farmers employ thousands of pickers each year who come to the Coffs Coast from all corners of the globe. Many return season after season, year after year. In peak periods Kellie may employ up to 60 pickers a day and she is pleased to provide a safe and positive working environment for them.
“They’re a delightful bunch of young travellers and over the years we’ve established lovely relationships. I give everyone lollies throughout the day and a beer at the end of each working day to show them how much I appreciate their efforts. The job is hard, very labour intensive and it’s lovely to all kick back and unwind after a busy day of picking.”
Always one to try new things, Kellie is, quite literally, branching out having recently planted 250 seedlings of the Moringa tree. This species, also known as the Miracle Tree, is highly nutritious as has been used to treat malnutrition in third world countries. It may very well be the next big thing in ‘superfoods.’
“We love growing things alongside our blueberries that are great for the soul and in addition to the Moringa Tree we’ve introduced beautiful healthy produce such as garlic, turmeric and ginger.”
The Happy Farmer
Kellie’s passion for farming is evident and she describes feeling ‘privileged’ to be a farmer. However, she’s also quick to acknowledge the many challenges farmers face be it drought, fires, or financial hardship.
“In my opinion, farmers need a different mindset. You often have to get up early, work late and there are some days you don’t get paid for the work you do but it’s hugely rewarding knowing you are producing food for people. I consider myself incredibly lucky to do what I do.”
It’s dusk as we finish chatting and as Kellie wanders toward her thriving veggie garden to grab something fresh for dinner, my son’s smile is broad and his hands full of berries to snack on as we head home.