Berry Sweet’s philosophy is simple – they should be able to walk into their field at any time and eat whatever they want straight off the plant, knowing that what they’re eating has nothing harmful and is healthy.
It’s this ideology that drives Berry Sweet owners Anthony and Lee-Anne Yewers, as they continue to innovate and aspire to become Australia’s best quality and most sustainable soft fruit grower.
Established in the early 1990s and starting off as a strawberry farm in Bullsbrook, north of Perth, supplying the local market in Western Australia, they now grow strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries in three locations, including Pemberton, and supply Australia’s major supermarkets and the world’s largest berry brands.
They are a family business that’s always on the lookout to adopt the latest horticultural methods and technologies and diversify their fruit varieties, which is the secret to their success today.
Anthony and Lee-Anne have entrusted the day to day running and farm management of their Pemberton property, on Channybearup Road, to Dougy Savage, an experienced berry man having worked for the biggest berry producer in Australia.
Dougy has a thick Scottish accent, and some would say he’s a citizen of the world for his work has seen him live all over the globe. His charismatic, friendly, and approachable nature makes him the perfect Farm Manager, as he’s responsible for a workforce in excess of 150 people.
When Dougy and his wife first arrived in Australia, they started by working their way around the country picking table grapes and citrus, enabling them to see so much of this amazing country we call home. Dougy worked his way up to manager of a strawberry farm in Tasmania for Costa Corporation, where he worked for four years prior to coming to Western Australia and joining the Berry Sweet team.
If you have ever driven the length of Channybearup Road in the Southern Forests, at the sheer sight you would have been in awe of enormity of the Berry Sweet Strawberry Farm. The 45-hectare property has 21 hectares covered in tunnels for their 1.2 million strawberry plants. In addition to their impressive strawberry production, they also grow raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
Strawberries are Berry Sweet’s speciality. It’s what Anthony and Lee-Anne are passionate about and have grown since the beginning of their farming career. On an average year, Dougy expects to yield 850 grams of quality first grade fruit per strawberry plant. When you do the maths, that’s an impressive 1020 tonne of strawberries leaving the Pemberton farm gate every year.
Each year, new strawberry plants are potted into shaven coconut husk bags in July and August. The berries take three months to grow and when the white flowering begins, Dougy knows the plants are only four weeks away from harvest commencing – usually around mid-October. Each plant is on a two-day picking rotation and during the peak of the summer heat their picking crew will work seven days a week.
Berry Sweet is very focussed and invested in producing quality berries with extra assurances in place to ensure the customer is receiving the best possible eating experience. Berries that are picked one day can be on supermarket shelves by 9am the next day.
To ensure minimal handling and reduce the chance of damage, the strawberries are picked and packed in the field. The pickers size the fruit into small, medium, and large punnets. Then they’re taken to the packing shed where the team double check the weight and quality before scanning through metal detectors. It’s then straight into the cool room to wait for collection by Warren Districts Transport that afternoon, where they are trucked to Perth for distribution.
Berry Sweet were one of the first, if not the first, producer in the Southern Forests region to engage with Australia's Pacific labour mobility initiatives – the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). These programs have been so important to the farm’s operation, especially in recent times with international labour shortages, that without it they would have had to shut their gates.
Berry Sweet have 110 workers through the program this year, predominantly from Vanuatu and a smaller amount from Tonga. Each nationality has different cultural practices and needs, meaning their pastoral care or management in the workplace varies. Dougy believes they have the right management dynamic and collectively they are one team working towards common goals.
In a nutshell, this program allows these workers to make good money for their 9 months Australian work stay, before returning home to reconnect with their families, renovate their homes and engage in traditional customs. They are learning new skills and financially equipping themselves for a better future in Vanuatu and Tonga. Due to Covid restrictions and the closure of international flights a few workers have been in Australia for up to three years. Such a long stay is not ideal, as the program intends to preserve cultural practices and not disrupt community structures.
Berry Sweet have a 70% return rate in their seasonal workers program. It’s this continuity that saves Berry Sweet in time and money. The workers may only need a training refresher, as opposed to the full investment that new staff require. It also helps that they know the region, where to go in town and what to do on their days off.
When Anthony and Lee-Anne purchased the Pemberton property over nine years ago, part of the reason was for the quality of the water and soil. Funny enough, now they don’t actually grow any of the berries directly in the ground. By growing in coconut husks on tabletops, it enables their pickers to be walking upright when harvesting, as well as making the crops less prone to bugs, rot or mould that can come from the ground.
One of the greatest innovations Dougy has helped implement has been the transformation to tabletop crops with one touch picking and packing in the field. They’re also a very responsive operator. When there were needles found in strawberries in supermarkets on the east coast, they implemented on farm metal detectors after the incident, at a cost of $40,000 each. In addition to this, all workers wear a food grade bandaids with a magnetic strip that is picked up by the metal detectors in the circumstance that one comes off.
Berry Sweet Strawberry Farm produces both public and licenced varieties. Look out for their berries in the following supermarkets:
· Berry Sweet Strawberries - Coles and Aldi
· Driscoll's licenced fruit - Coles and Woolworths
· Forest Fresh Berries (co-branded with Genuinely Southern Forests) - Aldi
You can also purchase second grade strawberries direct from the Berry Sweet packing shed on Pimelea Road (Channybearup), Pemberton.
Photography by Craig Kinder Photography for Genuinely Southern Forests.