Stacey Sheppard finds out how two brothers started a business growing blueberries and are now expanding their range in some unusual directions
The story of The Blueberry Brothers began in 2005 when Nick Hewison returned from working in the US convinced of the potential for growing blueberries. With his brother Toby, he set about cultivating the land that their family owned in Lustleigh. Formerly used by their parents to grow Christmas trees, the land was planted with 650 blueberry bushes.
Since then the company has gone from strength to strength. They now supply fresh blueberries to local restaurants, shops and farm shops, including Gidleigh Park near Chagford and The Cleave Inn and Primrose Tea Rooms in Lustleigh. “In 2006, Michael Caines tasted our blueberries,” says Nick. “The next thing we knew, Toby and I were having coffee with Michael on the veranda at Gidleigh Park and we have been supplying them ever since.”
It’s no surprise that the superfood is a hit with the locals. Nick puts their success down to three things: freshness, flavour and provenance. He says: “We pick to order for our customers so our berries are delivered within a couple of hours of being picked.”
Although the company is too small to supply supermarkets, Nick believes that this is an advantage when it comes to the quality of the product. “Blueberries grown abroad may be 5-7 days old before they reach the supermarket shelves and even British-grown blueberries will be a couple of days old,” he says.
However, growing only enough berries for local supply has economic disadvantages. “We grow fantastic tasting berries but there is a limit to the premium you can reasonably charge. We have held our prices since 2005 as more UK-grown blueberries have entered the market,” Nick says.
Explaining that blueberries are entirely dependent on manual labour for planting, pruning, weeding and picking, Nick says that berries grown abroad will always be cheaper. Even at home The Blueberry Brothers face stiff competition from larger farms. “This significantly reduces the labour cost per kilo. These farms will have a minimum of 10,000 bushes, whereas we have fewer than 700. We also make life hard for ourselves because we do not use weedkillers or pesticides, so we hand weed,” says Nick.
Given the competitive market and the short season in which blueberries can be grown, Nick and Toby had to look for more inventive ways to boost their income. “It was in 2009 when we were visiting blueberry farms and related businesses in Maine, USA that we saw the potential for a year-round business based on a range of branded blueberry products,” explains Nick.
The brothers have now teamed up with a variety of local producers in order to develop their ideas. “We work with Shaun Ryder of Ryder’s Bakery, who bakes our muffins, Rachel Stevens of Curworthy Cheese, and Stuart Thomson of Atlantic Brewery for our new beer,” says Nick. “When Toby and I were in Maine we had dinner one evening in a bar that sold blueberry beer. We tried it and we liked it. We have been working with Stuart Thomson since last summer to develop a similar beer.”
But that is not all. The Blueberry Brothers already have a long list of potential new products. “When Nick was in the USA he collected recipe books with literally hundreds of blueberry recipes – and even some interesting non-food items,” says Toby.
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