Some years ago, after observing the difficulty of getting permits for new vineyards, I thought that there were still many hectares of forest in Priorat from neglected crops, which were not good for any profitable crop, and which were a fire danger in summer.
I thought that those neglected areas could be used to increase the beauty of the vineyard. Therefore, if we changed those neglected small forests understory of gorse, rosemary, kermes oak…, replacing them with plants which produced fruits of the forest, like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or others… we would turn the neglected forests into profitable gardens. And when visitors came to try our great wines and see our vineyards where these wines are produced, we would also show them that here, vine growers, apart from growing the vineyard in a sustainable manner, we can also turn neglected areas into profitable ones by turning them into small supplementary crops.
Nowadays, blueberries are becoming popular because it is a very healthy fruit that provides nutrients which boost the immune system, in addition to many other properties. So why do we have to import them from Chile or Huelva if we can produce them here and save ourselves the transportation costs?
We worked on the idea and, of course, we had to know first if this kind of crop was viable.
In order to make it work, the first thing that we did was to take all the possible information about this kind of crop. We started by searching on the Internet, and among other things, we found the contact of a technician from the SERIDA (Regional Agrifood Research and Development Service of Asturias) who was in charge of the investigation that, 15 or 20 years ago, started to study the cultivation of fruits of the forest, but especially blueberries, in order to make it possible in that region. We went on a trip to see the experimental crops and learn more about the possibility of applying, in Priorat, what they had carried out in Asturias.
Their willingness and cooperation have been very positive, and we have travelled there three more times. This way, in 2017, we could start growing blueberries in Priorat.
Now we are studying their viability, because their growing is a bit special, and it requires very specific and particular conditions. At the same time, and in the long run, we will see if their growing is economically viable in this region.
There is another thing that we discovered when we started their commercialisation, which is the relationship between their degree of ripeness and their quality. Everyone knows that the optimal quality of the fruit is when we eat it ripe, this is the moment when can fully benefit from its properties. But the anatomy and physiology of this plant makes it difficult to harvest.
Blueberries are an inflorescence (like grape bunches), but in this case, each blueberry ripens independently of the other blueberries around. This means that they must be selected and harvested one by one. The blue colour marks the beginning of their ripeness, but not their optimal ripeness, and in order to harvest the blueberries in an optimal ripeness state, you must have tried many, with a lot of patience and enthusiasm.
This product is usually produced and commercialised by big international companies. These groups have very large crops where they hire seasonal workers. The main cost in this kind of crop is its harvest, and in order to reduce it they need to harvest as quickly as possible. We said before that blueberries must be ripe to taste good and show all their properties, they must be ripe, and this is not something easy to achieve if they must be harvested very quickly. This is exactly why it is difficult to find sweet blueberries on the market.
On the other hand, small producers can do things well. We have seen it with the vine here in Priorat, the plots are not too big, and the producer works for him/herself and makes a quality product. Therefore, the land has been valorised, and blueberries can be an opportunity to complement the profits of the grapes, the wine, or other crops.
We must think that, in Priorat, we can make a good living from agriculture, if we produce little fruit, and which is especially good and of great quality.
Nowadays, only a person with the ability to provide richness to the crops can be a farmer.
Josep Lluís Pérez