22 August 1997

REALLY THE BLUES DOWN IN DORSET…

While blueberries might be as American as moms blueberry pie, they have been grown in Dorset since the 1950s. Tessa Gates met Englands longest established grower and a Canadian exporter for a

taste of the blues

THE Trehane family of Wimborne, Dorset, are Englands oldest commercial blueberry growers and their Dorset Blues are sold at a premium over imported fruit.

Jeremy Trehane and his nephew grow 3ha (7.5 acres) of the fruit but it was Jeremys father, David, who started the blueberry plantation.

"It was a couple of years after the war and my father saw an advertisement in The Grower from a Canadian organisation offering 100 free blueberry plants to anyone who liked to write to them," explains Jeremy. "Six people took up the offer and my father was the only one to recognise the commercial potential and develop the plants."

The first commercial acre of blueberries was planted by David Trehane in 1957 and over the next 10 years he planted a further 2.5ha (6 acres) of American hybrids developed in the 1950s and 60s. The original plants he had been sent were hybrids developed in the 1920s – some of which are still cropping.

"Studies in America show that for optimum commercial production the bushes should be replaced after 30 years, but our oldest are 40 years old and still going strong," says Jeremy, who averages 4-5t of fruit an acre in a good year.

Blueberries need a very acid soil and the Trehanes farm on the Bagshot Sands. "This was virtually virgin heath when my father started out. Here in England there is little suitable soil to grow them in as heathland is now one of the most protected environments there is. Blueberries need a pH of 4.2-5.2 and not over 5.6," says Jeremy.

He can supply plants from the specialist blueberry and camellia nursery he runs, and says the Highbush blueberry is a very decorative plant in its own right, particularly in its glorious autumn colours of reds and yellows.

His plantation has to be fenced and netted against rabbit, deer and bird predation, but nothing it seems keeps the badgers out. Pointing out a flattened bush, he tells of how badgers tear their way through the wire fencing to feast on the berries.

He has no need to do any routine spraying against pests and no chemicals are used near the fruit at all. Frost is rarely a problem. "It needs to very cold for us to lose a crop and thankfully this has only happened once," he says.

All the blueberries are Highbush and Blue Crop is the main variety he grows. He also has Blue Ray, Ivanhoe and Berkley. Each has its own flavour with Ivanhoe the strongest and Berkley the most delicate.

"They are full of vitamins A and C and really are the most versatile soft fruit there is. They are wonderful fresh or cooked and go well with other fruits – a touch of lemon juice really brings out the flavour," enthuses Jeremy, who particularly likes them in blueberry and banana crumble.

Harvest runs from mid-July to mid-Sept peaking in August. Jeremys Dorset Blues are sold on quality – 60% goes to Marks & Spencer and the rest to selected wholesalers – so they are hand picked with care. "Quality is the key to our success so training and discipline are important to ensure that only the right fruit is picked," explains Jeremy who employs 40-50 pickers in peak weeks.

"Blueberries are imported from all over the world but ours earn a premium, being English and very fresh. They are a good earner for us. We were established very early on, so by the time they started coming in from Holland and elsewhere we were already doing well," he explains.

Marketing the key

"The key is marketing. We are not small enough to be a boutique business and not big enough to feature on the European market. My task is marketing the Trehane name which is always linked to English blueberries and linked with quality. We have to keep working at that. We cant rest on our laurels. We pay attention to detail from the growing right through to the packhouse so when crunch price negotiations come – as they did yesterday with M&S – we know we cant be beaten on quality."

Jeremy has been running the blueberry enterprise since 1969, but he has been involved with the fruit since 1961 when, as a 12-year-old, he helped pick the first blueberry crop to be sent to London. "I still supply the same company in Covent Garden today," he says.

He also packs Irish blueberries grown from plants supplied by the Trehane Nursery. "The potential for blueberries is the same as for cranberries, which are being marketed for their health giving properties, but the new expansion of blueberries will be in Southern Ireland rather than England."

But it wont all be left to the Irish. "My nephew David is taking over half the plantations and is to be in charge of field production. He is looking to expand and grow more blueberries here," says Jeremy, proud that the Trehane name will continue to be synonymous with English blueberries.

Jeremy Trehane and his wife Sandra with some of their Dorset Blues – hand picked English grown blueberries from a plantation established by Jeremys father.