Once upon a time, blueberries were a rare frozen import in New Zealand and the best thing to do with them was make muffins for a sweet-tart result. Or maybe a blueberry and apple pie, channelling an American dessert staple, or blueberry jam. Not much else, though.
By the 21st Century, we’d got to know blueberries better, we were growing them in New Zealand, and the plump blue nuggets of goodness were becoming a popular addition to the summer berry harvest. Nowadays, blueberry lovers hang out for the first of the velvety berries to appear in about mid-October, and they just keep coming. Right through to the first frosts, maybe in late April.
In the Waikato, where blueberries thrive in peaty soils, the de Groot family has ridden the blue wave from the beginning: Dutch immigrants Paul and Mieke de Groot bought scrubland at Monavale, near Cambridge, in 1985, and they weren’t sure what would grow best in the rich peat under the foliage they cleared. So they planted a variety of fruit and vegetables, among them the fledgling blueberry bushes that would later be the stars of their business.
Paul and Mieke’s son Marco de Groot, and daughter Marije Banks, tell their family’s story over coffee at Café Irresistiblue, the rustic eatery on the 44ha Monavale Blueberries orchard. Marije shows old photographs of her parents and their children clearing the land, and planting bushes. “It is highly fertile soil,” she says, “the blueberries do so well here; it is like putting them into potting mix.”
In the early years, almost all the de Groot’s harvest was exported and it took a while for the local market to build. Marije recalls people looking at the fresh little berries and asking, “Do you need to peel them?”
Today at the property there are sturdy green bushes as far as the eye can see. This is the country’s largest BioGro NZ certified organic blueberry orchard; it has more than 80,000 bushes, comprising 35 varieties under the umbrella breeds of High Bush and Rabbit Eyes. It produces more than 100 tonnes of plump berries each year, sold worldwide to markets in Europe, the US, Asia and Australia, as well as in New Zealand.
The family are stalwarts at Hamilton and Cambridge Farmers’ Markets, staying close to their Waikato roots. Says Marco: “We love listening to feedback from our customers.”
There is also Café Irresistiblue, opened in 2009, where you can be guaranteed sweet and savoury dishes that show the culinary versatility of blueberries, and where you can shop for blueberry products such as pressed organic juice, blueberry jam, sauce, chutney, and blueberry ice cream.
The business is the work of three generations: Paul and Mieke remain involved, and Marco and Marije are hands-on, along with Marco’s wife Kath, and their son Oliver, and Marije’s husband Richard Banks. Marco is a civil engineer, Marije has a management degree, and everyone brings their expertise to the orchard.
The family cultivates the fruit according to organic principles that started with Paul and Mieke’s wish to care for their land and crops in an environmentally sustainable and chemical-free manner.
The bushes are fed with an organic solid fertiliser mix and a liquid mix, they are weeded by hand, and the fruit is painstakingly picked by hand. Marco says if the soil is balanced, then the plant is healthy, and insects do not attack healthy plants. “Healthy soil, healthy plant, healthy people.”
And blueberries, of course, not only taste good, but they’re good for you. They are high in antioxidants and dietary fibre, they are a source of Vitamin C and A, and they are low in calories. Recent research links them to a number of other significant health benefits.
Marco and Marije say the New Zealand market is growing as people understand more about the berries’ benefits, and great flavour. Their business doubled in size four years ago, they continue to trial new varieties in the orchard’s tunnel houses, and there is a never-ending programme of replanting, weeding and general care.
Packing, grading and freezing for the overseas and local markets is all done on-site and at peak season – around February – the family employs up to 150 casual staff, many of them travelling backpackers. There is now some anxiety and uncertainty – due to Coronavirus border restrictions – as to whether they’ll have enough hands at peak.
During the national lockdown earlier this year, when staff were unable to be at the orchard, the entire family bubble of three generations stepped up to pick the crop. “We quickly remembered what to do,” says Marije.
This season there will also be impromptu picking as Monavale Blueberries offers PYO, always an attraction for mums, dads and kids. Says Marco, “It’s good to see families out here on the orchard, and children learning about where their food comes from.”
And adding to the legion of blueberry lovers who hang out for the first fruits of the season.
- Monavale Blueberries, 178 Turkington Rd, Monavale, Cambridge, ph 0800 423774, monavaleblueberries.co.nz
- Blueberries have become much loved in New Zealand in the past two decades. Industry body Blueberries NZ estimates there are 650 ha of blueberries currently planted, or being planted. They are well-established in the Waikato, traditional home of blueberries, and also in Hawke’s Bay, and there are more recent plantings in the Bay of Plenty, Northland, and other North Island regions, as well as in the South Island.