A complete blueberry experience at Mamaku Blue
Starting as a small blueberry orchard in the 80’s, the Mamaku Blue family business has grown and evolved with the changing fortunes of the blueberry industry and now involves selling fresh blueberries at farmers’ markets, production of blueberry juice, wine and liqueur for export and local trade, in-house production of a wide range of blueberry jams, chutneys and other preserves, online sales, an on-site café, shop and museum and orchard tours.
Anne and Harry Frost have been living on 40ha high up in the Mamaku Range for nearly 50 years. In the early 80’s their farm had become uneconomic and they realised they had to either diversify or sell up and going farming elsewhere. Blueberries were a relatively new crop for NZ and someone pointed out that they grew well in elevated regions of the USA so they would probably thrive in the Mamakus. The Frosts decided to give it a go, bought 2000 three-year old plants in pots, took cuttings and started planting.
When the bushes started producing the only market available was fresh export as blueberries were virtually unknown to the NZ public, but that was successful and they planted another hectare of bushes in 1985.
In 1988 Cyclone Bola struck and most of their fruit ended up on the ground. It was a disaster but one of their pickers suggested that they might use the fruit to make wine. Nobody knew how, so the picker was sent to the local library to get some information.
They started with 10-litre buckets and a potato masher, and while the results were good it was on a small scale and the Frosts didn’t think it would ever become important to the business.
“Even just a few years before we built the winery, somebody suggested to me that they might come back and find that we had built a winery and I said “don’t be stupid, I have more than enough to do, why would I want to do that?’” says Anne.
“But it did happen. In 1997 we became Rotorua’s first winery with my kitchen table as the licensed premises and the following year we won our first medal for our medium blueberry wine. We tried to market to shops and hotels but found that really wasn’t successful, so we built a complex here and opened it to the public in 2000 as Mamaku Blue Winery selling our wine, liqueur and juice along with other people’s products.”
In 2001 the couple’s eldest son Phillip returned home after spending some time in the USA. With him he brought a machine harvester. It was good timing – the rise in the NZ dollar meant that exports were becoming less profitable but machine harvesting of berries for processing into jams, jellies, chutneys and sauces was economic.
Over the following few years more blueberries were planted and a factory was built incorporating a blast freezer, cool rooms, a wine making facility and a grading area. In 2006 public interest in blueberries surged when it was found that they were a rich source of antioxidants. However, because their business was called a “winery” many people thought that they sold only alcoholic products, so the Frosts decided to change the name to Mamaku Blue Blueberry Experience. This proved very successful in attracting more visitors passing through on their way to Rotorua.
The family’s interest in quality, sustainability and low chemical inputs led them to employ biological methods in soil and fertiliser management. This was a good move. While cheap imports of frozen berries from China and Chile depressed the process market, the Frosts found great demand for their fresh berries at farmers’ markets in Auckland and the Bay of Plenty and attracted a very loyal clientele. In 2011 they were the second-favourite Farmers’ Market stall holder in the country. The family continues to attend six farmers markets in Auckland and the Bay of Plenty each week during the summer fresh fruit season, and monthly with frozen berries and their other products throughout the rest of the year
In 2010 Mamaku Blue began a project with Massey University on the nutritional properties of their blueberries and juice. This showed that their juices had one of the highest levels of antioxidants compared with blueberry juices from other sources.
Their blueberry wines continue to be popular and have won many accolades over the years, the highest being a Gold Medal and Best Red Wine Trophy in the 2013 National Fruit Wine Competition. Their blueberry liqueur, plum liqueur and sparkling golden gooseberry wine have also won medals.
Today the company has 5ha of established blueberry bushes, and a further 3ha recently planted will begin fruiting in a couple of years. It also has 0.5ha of gooseberries. Virtually all their manufactured products are made on the premises and are available in their shop/café complex. Tours of the orchard, winery and the surrounding bush are popular with tourists. There is also a museum and function room on site and the orchard is available for weddings.
Anne says that as outside pressures have forced changes, the business has evolved and the “experience” approach has been very successful for them. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the years because of things like 9/11 and the SARS scare that affected tourism. Having a website and online shop has improved the business because many overseas customers as well as NZ’ers now order online,” she says.
“We are exporting again but now it’s wine and liqueur. A year ago we had our first export order of wine to China and we have just finished a second order for wine and liqueur. So after a lot of hard work over many years it seems to be all coming together.”
Anne and Harry’s eldest son Phillip has worked in the business since 2000 and has been involved in choosing blueberry varieties for recent plantings. “We’ve tried about 30 different varieties to find ones that suit our soil and climate. Because we are high up and get late spring frosts, they can’t flower too early and they can’t ripen too late because of the risk of early autumn frosts, so there is a short window of opportunity here to grow and harvest berries compared with our counterparts in the Waikato or Northland,” says Phillip.
“They can harvest blueberries from November through to May, we have just January through to the end of March. However, the main consideration for us is taste – if we don’t like the taste of the berry we will not grow it. We prefer the older high bush varieties that have been around for years and we believe they have better nutritional value and health benefits than the more recent varieties that have been modified to extend shelf life etc.”
Protecting and pollinating flowers are major concerns. The orchard is on a slope, and since cold air flows downhill it is important to keep drains cleared and the ends of netting covers open so that the flow is not hindered. Organic sprays are also used sometimes to raise plant temperatures. Pollination requires bees, and that means bringing in hives of honey and bumble bees. Phillip says that while honey bees will do the job in good weather, they stay home and eat stored honey when it is cold and wet. Bumble bees don’t store food and so must eat every day. They also have more fur and can tolerate cold and so will work when the honey bees won’t.
A local beekeeper brings in honey bee hives while bumble bees arrive by post in their own little hive. Once flowering is over the honey bees go elsewhere but the Frosts try to find places to put the bumble bees so that they will persist over winter. This season the provision of bees to ensure pollination cost $20,000.
The orchard policy is to avoid the use of artificial chemicals wherever possible. Liquid fertiliser foliar sprays and soil applications are used several times in spring and once in autumn. The make-up of the fertiliser is determined by soil and foliage tests and Phillip takes advice from Clive Umbers of Air8ors, a company that specialises in using compressed air injection to break up pans and pugged or compacted soils and to colonise the soil with mycorrhizal fungi. Pests and some diseases can be controlled with chlorine dioxide, a water soluble gas that is applied at night and is neutralized by UV daylight. It is hoped that this biological approach will also control the relatively new problem of Botryosphaeria, a fungus that can cause die-back and crown rot.
While shop and farmers market sales of fresh berries, juice, wine and liqueur are a major part of the business, the Frosts have added about 20 blueberry products to their range, from jams to chutneys, pickles and even blueberry dog bones! Gooseberry wine and other products, toiletries and gift baskets are also available, and for those calling in at the shop there are orchard and bush tours available with tasting afterwards and a snack at the café. A totally integrated blueberry “experience”.