Boysenberry growers call it quits after continuing losses

PETER WATSON
Last updated 13:00 28/02/2012
Brothers Alan and Peter Field, of Berry Fields, which will close down.
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
END OF THE ROAD: Brothers Alan and Peter Field, of Berry Fields, which will close down.

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The country's two biggest boysenberry growers have quit the Nelson-based industry after another season blighted by bad weather and a high New Zealand dollar.

Their withdrawal means not only the loss of export income, but the end to hundreds of seasonal jobs which local people, particularly students, relied on to supplement their income.

Both Ranzau Horticulture and Berry Fields have started pulling out about 80 hectares of vines, although an existing grower is to take over 23ha of the Berry Fields' fruit on McShane Rd and another is interested in running its pick-your-own operation.

Graham Battersby, of Ranzau Horticulture, the world's single largest boysenberry grower, said after four years of making a loss it was time to do something profitable with his land.

The high dollar had made it uneconomic to do business in the industry's main export markets in Britain, Europe and the United States, he said. "You can sell the product at a good price, but once you convert it back to New Zealand dollars the returns are just not there."

Disastrous weather extremes in recent years were also a major factor in his decision to quit the industry because they had slashed his yields, including almost half his crop this year, he said.

Spring gales stripped fruit from vines, followed by floods just before Christmas, and an outbreak of botrytis afterwards was the final straw, he said.

After 28 years of growing berries, it was not easy to see 63ha of vines go, although some plants were being sold to other growers. "It's been a wrench to suddenly start pulling out plants that you have nurtured."

It had also been difficult telling staff, including one woman supervisor who had been there from the start, Mr Battersby said.

It would also have an economic impact locally as the business paid out $860,000 in wages over the last year to the 75 people hired to help with the harvest and pack the fruit in summer, the 40 employed during the winter to tie up the vines and the three permanent staff.

However, some of these jobs would be replaced by new ones because he would be leasing most of his land to local vegetable growers.

Alan Field, who along with his brothers, Philip and Peter, ran Berry Fields for 37 years, said they felt "pretty sad" shutting the gate and laying off staff.

It would mean the loss of about 100 summer jobs, another 35 during winter and three fulltime positions, although some of these people would be picked up by other growers, he said.

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"It's amazing how many people have worked here over the years." They ranged from mothers to countless students, he said. "We've helped put a lot of kids through university."

About 15ha of vines had already been pulled out on the eastern side of McShane Rd on land earmarked as part of the proposed Richmond West urban development, while the rest was to be leased to other growers, he said.

"But the reality is you cannot keep making losses. We've had to bite the bullet and say that's it.

"It was No4 of a run of four bad seasons. This season started off with the vines being damaged by strong winds and everything turned to custard from there."

The decision was made a little easier as they were all nearing retirement age, he said.

Both Mr Battersby and Mr Field said despite their decision, they believed the industry would survive the downturn and that boysenberries had a bright future.

There will be a more in-depth look at the possible impact on the industry in next week's Primary Focus pages.

- The Nelson Mail

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