Barkers and Blackcurrants

April 2016

The Geraldine based fruit processing company and its suppliers

A surplus of blackcurrant berries in the early 80s led a group of Sth Canterbury growers to approach a local fruit wine maker for help in developing blackcurrant products. The result was Barkers Blackcurrant Syrup that was highly successful and led to Barkers expanding into other fruit syrups and then into a wide range of fruit and vegetable condiments, jams, toppings and ingredients. Research is now showing nutritional advantages in NZ blackcurrants and there is potential for the industry to add more value and expand exports.

In the mid 70s the Dept of Agriculture sought a crop that would be as successful for the South Island as kiwifruit was in the North Island. Blackcurrants seemed to fit the bill and were promoted as “the black gold of the south”. Arable farmers were encouraged to plant significant areas with NZ bred varieties. Unfortunately marketing of the fresh fruit was less successful, supply exceeded demand and farm gate prices were poor.

Several growers near Geraldine, including Don McFarlane, approached Anthony Barker, a small-scale maker of fruit wines. Could he use their surplus fruit to make other consumer products and so create an ongoing demand?

It was the early 80s and Anthony’s son Michael had just graduated from Lincoln. With Anthony’s innovative flair and Michael’s youthful enthusiasm plus marketing help from Michael Mellon, who had been Michael’s marketing lecturer from Lincoln, they built a factory and created Barker’s Blackcurrant Syrup.

The aim was to develop their first non-alcoholic drink by squeezing and processing the blackcurrants to produce a concentrated cordial of high nutritional quality and excellent flavour. It was a risky business – the set-up costs were high and there was already a blackcurrant drink on the market. However, the venture proved successful and Barkers syrup went on to become the foundation product of their now large and diverse range of specialty fruit and vegetable products.

Don McFarlane continued to plant blackcurrants to supply Barkers in the 80s and 90s, and today his son Hamish is doing the same on McFarlane Agriculture’s 540ha property at Orton, near Geraldine in South Canterbury.

“The farm was bought by my grandparents in the 40s and sold to my father in the late 50s. It was originally a sheep farm and when he took it over Dad started planting arable seed crops. In the late 70s he established the blackcurrants,” says Hamish.

“I came back home in 2002 and I now manage the farm. Currently we grow potatoes, carrots, cereal and grass seeds, beetroot and some other small seeds, and peas and beans. We also trade lambs and do winter dairy grazing and heifer grazing. We are crazily diversified.”

While blackcurrants are not the only crop they are an important focus for Hamish – 110 ha of canes of many varieties, some from the early days of NZ breeding and others developed more recently by Plant & Food Research and its predecessor. Growers typically plant 8000 – 9000 canes per hectare and the industry average berry yield is around 6 tonnes/ha.

“Usually we plant in winter from cuttings and then it’s about 2½ years before the first crop. A stand will last for 10 to 15 years, and once during that time we may cut the bushes back to ground level and let them regrow. You lose a harvest for that year because the berries grow on to second year wood,” says Hamish.

“In spring we put on fertiliser and have a very light fungicide spray programme – there are tight industry restrictions on what we can use. Flowering starts early October and goes through until early November and from then it is a matter of irrigation to ensure they have adequate water – they don’t like to be stressed.”

Harvesting starts in late December or January and continues until mid-February. Different varieties mature at slightly different times and the location also has an effect. A mechanical harvester shakes the berries off the bushes onto an elevator. They go through a cleaning system and a quality control step and then go into half-tonne bins. The crop is pressed in Timaru and stored frozen for later processing throughout the year by Barkers.

The major pest is the currant clearwing moth Synanthedon tipuliformis. Its larvae burrow into the bush and chew out the centre of the cane, reducing yield and plant life. Pheromone ties are attached to the bushes early in November to disrupt mating. Hamish says that despite the ties clearwing damage is an increasing problem and this year they will monitor the populations closely.

“We found that by moving to IPM most of the other problems have been reduced. We introduced predator mites and adjusted our management programme to encourage beneficial insects,” he says.

“Frosts can be a problem during flowering and we use helicopters for frost protection. Hail and norwesters around flowering and harvest can also devastate crops, so there are some significant weather hazards.”

Despite the risks the returns are generally at least as good as other arable crops, according to Hamish. He is committed to producing blackcurrants as part of his food production business and enjoys the relationship with Barkers who have a similar philosophy of producing high quality functional foods.

For his part, Michael Barker is also committed to servicing and growing the blackcurrant industry.

“Don McFarlane, Hamish’s father, and a couple of other local growers approached my father in about 1980 and said ‘You are making fruit wines, how about you make something out of blackcurrants because we have put in all these blackcurrant plants and suddenly the bottom has dropped out of the market.’ That totally changed our company,” says Michael.

“Prior to that Mum and Dad had only been making elderberry and strawberry wines. I was just home from Lincoln and it sounded exciting so we raised a whole lot of money and built a factory to process blackcurrants, which formed the basis of our business today.”

“It was risky but it had to work, and thank God it did! We launched a product called Barkers pure natural blackcurrant juice that had no added colour, flavour or preservative. It was demonstrably the best product on the market and within a few years it was the market leader. But it was just one of those lucky things – we managed to identify an opportunity and it became a huge success for us and still is.”

The move to process blackcurrants was the springboard for Barkers to expand their business. Over the years their syrup range has grown and they are now the number one NZ manufacturer of fruit syrups or cordials. Flavours and styles have evolved to keep abreast with changing consumer preferences. Rhubarb, raspberry and rosehip is one of the latest flavours that now, like the blackcurrant syrup, comes in a low-calorie option – the same formulation as the conventional product but with half the sugar replaced by natural sweeteners.

Barkers’ range of retail foods and commercial food ingredients has mushroomed since the 80s. They process 16 hours each day, all year round making about 500 products from fruit and vegetables. About 1500 tonnes of NZ fruit is processed annually, and as much again is imported in the form of Canadian cranberries, European sour cherries, Tropical mangos and passionfruit. Surprisingly, raspberries have to be imported because NZ doesn’t grow many raspberries.

“Working with agri-business investors to develop a NZ raspberry industry is an exciting future opportunity,” says Michael.

“About half of our business is retail and the other half is supplying the food industry. Most bakeries in NZ are buying Barkers products whether it be raspberry jam to squirt into their doughnuts, fruit fillings for Danish pasties, savoury fillings for paninis, twists and scrolls, or real fruit flavours for yoghurts and ice-creams,” says Michael.

“Increasingly now the baking, biscuit and dairy industries want specialty local ingredients such as Kerikeri lemon or Nelson berries or Gisborne citrus for yoghurts. Where the fruit is grown in NZ becomes part of the story, and it is part of our story too.”

Many of the NZ crops they buy are frozen and stored for later processing – blueberries from the Waikato, blackberries from Horowhenua, boysenberries from Nelson – while others are received and processed fresh. Apricots and Plums from Central Otago are processed in-house daily during the season as are a range of citrus fruits from Gisborne.

“The trick is that we have long-term arrangements with a range of best-in-class growers, the bigger and more sophisticated the better because otherwise they just don’t pass the safety and quality audits,” says Michael.

“If a grower can’t get the processing right then we gear ourselves up to do it. That’s how we supply all sorts of products all year round to markets in Australia and New Zealand and a few other countries.”

“We always prefer to use local fruits where we have some competitive advantage, and the blackcurrant is the best example of that.”

Both Hamish McFarlane and Michael Barker see a great future for blackcurrant products as functional foods. They point to recent research that indicates 2 – 4 times higher levels of polyphenols and anthocyanins in NZ berries, probably because of the varieties grown here and the climate that favours development of these nutraceuticals. Ongoing research is looking at the potential benefits to eyesight, brain function, protection against oxidative stress, muscle recovery and gut health and even asthma.

Demand is firm. The biggest buyer of NZ berries is the Ribena brand, which is owned by Suntory of Japan. Barkers are substantial buyers as is the NZ Blackcurrant Co-operative Ltd that produces food ingredients largely for export. There are also several smaller companies producing specialty products.

Hamish says there are about 30 committed growers in the country with a total of around 1400ha of blackcurrants producing 7000-9000 tonnes per annum. He sees a bright future for the industry.

“The health benefits of blackcurrants are outstanding – it’s almost like one of these products that’s too good to be true. Every bit of science that has been done keeps coming up with some quite substantial benefits quite apart from the great taste,” he says.

“New Zealand growers have a lot going for them because our climate with wide day and night temperature variations and strong sunlight seem to create better colour and flavour and nutritional content.”