Mountain Blue River Run blueberry farm near Tabulam.
Mountain Blue River Run blueberry farm near Tabulam. Susanna Freymark

PHOTOS: Ridley Bell's effect on Tabulam and the world

YOU'VE got to be crazy to breed blueberries, the region's largest blueberry grower Ridley Bell said.

Yet the 73 year old has spent most of his adult life perfecting the blue fruit through propagation and genetics.

Mountain Blue's plants are grown in 25 countries including the extra large Eureka blueberry.

"They're getting a good rap," Mr Bell said as he walks the rows of bushes grown under protective 'tunnels' to stop hail damage and blueberry eating birds.

He doesn't have a lot of time before he flies out to Peru.

Peru is a world away from the 160ha River Run Farm.

So too is Tesco supermarket in London who insist 70% of their blueberries come from Mountain Blue.

Mr Bell has spent 44 years in agriculture and has no desire to retire.

"I love being outside," he said. "My parents wanted me to be a doctor. I wanted to be a farmer."

On the other side of the river is the sorting and packing shed where 50 permanent staff work.

General operations manager Kamaldeep Singh Clair said 1500 tons of blueberries will be packed at the Tabulam site this season.

They begin picking in June and July, it ramps up in August and September to November is the busiest time, Mr Clair said.

The Jackson Flat packing shed needs 700-800 workers at the height of the season despite new technology that enables a machine to 'sort' the berries by photographing them from different angles, and discarding defect berries.

"The machine can sort 1.7 ton of blueberries every hour," Mr Clair said.

Despite the modernisation, workers are always needed.

"We need skilled workers to drive forklifts and trucks," Mr Clair said.

"And we need pickers."

Mountain Blue pays award wages to local and overseas workers and with contracts with Coles and Aldi and exporting to Singapore, getting the blueberries off the farm and into the sorting shed is an imperative.

The company has on site dongas for 170 workers but need a lot more accommodation.

Packing shed manager Terry Tamonan said they're looking further afield for accommodation.

Boarding houses for pickers must be council approved but anyone with a spare room or two can house a picker.

"It's like an exchange program where cultures can be shared," Mr Clair said.

The success of Mountain Blue has a ripple effect on Bonalbo, Tabulam, Tenterfield and even as far as Casino, not only in potential employment but in ways for residents to make some extra cash through housing a picker.

With a farm gate value of $25-$30 million a year, Mr Clair said most of the money was being spent back into the business.

Their future plans to grow raspberries, and extend the season for pickers, as well as farm visits for tourists, Mountain Blue continues to grow.

The ripple effect of any ag business is good for rural communities and Mr Bell and his team want Mountain Blues neighbours and feeder towns to take advantage of their success.

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