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Mulberries Make It Back To Popularity In South Australia – Mulberry Lover Becomes Pioneer!


Mulberry Farmer Pioneers Growing Techniques To Revive Ancient Fruit's Popularity

Landline By Jessica Schremmer  14 Aug 2021

Peter Szabo's Innovative Mulberry Harvester

Viticulturist Peter Szabo invented his own mulberry farming model to machine harvest the fruit.

A South Australian farmer is pioneering new methods of growing an "almost forgotten" fruit, to bring mulberries to new generations to enjoy their unique flavours.

A viticulturist by trade, Peter Szabo started growing mulberries at his farm in Kingston on Murray in South Australia's Riverland region from a single backyard tree six years ago.

"All our investments were in vineyards and that posed a real problem when we had a downturn in the viticulture industry and to improve my risk we decided to diversify," Mr Szabo said.

Mulberries have become a forgotten fruit in Australia

After running into trouble selling fresh mulberries, which are prone to grey mould issues, have a short shelf life and a need for handpicking, he decided to invent his own farming model.

"I have taken the mulberry tree and espaliered it onto a trellis system where I can machine-harvest the berries."

As one of Australia's only commercial mulberry growers, Mr Szabo now tends to 4 hectares of mulberry fruit and is set to produce 50 tonnes of fruit next year and his commitment to increase the knowledge and popularity of the ancient berry is strong.

"There is a real history to it, many people that have come to the farm tell me their story of their grandma's mulberry tree and jam and all their childhood memories, I find that fascinating and want to keep it alive."

Once he machine-harvests his mulberries, he packs and freezes them for bulk fruit sales to juicing companies and food manufacturers across the country.

Amanda Pennos Tasty Mulberry Preserves

Preserving Memories In A Jar

Besides distillers, artisan jam makers like Adelaide-based Amanda Penno love preserving flavours and memories in a jar.

Eager to bridge the gap between generations she is doing her part to lift the fruit's profile.

"Mulberries are definitely not something you can find easily in the supermarket and it's become a king of lost fruit," Ms Penno said.

To keep the flavour of mulberries as honest and authentic to the fruit, she crafts each jam in small batches.

"The mulberry jam flavour is a really special and unique flavour to mulberries and the people that have had mulberries in their childhood absolutely love it because it brings back a lot of memories," she said.

Beyond the flavour, Mr Szabo believed the versatile berry also served as a natural colourant.

"If you compare it to red wine in our region we probably have a colour density of about five to seven, mulberries are 35," he said.

"They are really colour dense and have heaps of opportunities for it."

Mr Szabo tends to 10 acres (4ha) of mulberry fruit rows which are set to produce 50 tons of fruit next year.

"We are still very much a fledgling industry, but they can go in a whole wide range of things, so I see demand just escalating because we haven't even tried to put them into ice-creams and yoghurts." ABC

Peter Szabo's 10 Acres Mulberry Orchard

Mulberries Underrated

In addition to providing fruit, mulberry tree bark is used to make paper overseas and its leaves can be fed to silkworms or used to wrap human food, much like grape vine leaves.

"They're [mulberries] really big in their homeland, from Pakistan all the way through to Egypt — Western Asia's where they're native and all around the Mediterranean rim," Mr Young said.

"It's one of the few fruits that you'll see in the hieroglyphs in the pyramids, all throughout Egypt. It is amazing."

Karen Lynch says the mulberries need to be sold locally because of their short shelf life.

Mr Young explained that the fruit is produced on the new season's growth and the pick could be extended for months, by staggering the part pruning of trees after the main harvest.

"Prune about 20 per cent of the tree back and when it regrows it'll fruit again, so you can get fruit in July, August, another crop in October, and then you prune another 20 per cent of the tree and get another crop around December, January," he said.

"But don't get greedy and try to do [continuously reprune] the whole tree because eventually it will run out of puff."

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Mr Szabo is one of the country's only commercial mulberry producers, having turned some of his Riverland wine grapes into 26 rows of the fruit.

It may seem strange given his profession revolves around grapes, but he said the idea to expand came about with success using just one, 6 metre tree outside his Kingston-On-Murray house.

"I have a big mulberry tree behind my house, and you spend many times watching the mulberry tree and picking it," Mr Szabo said.

"You just look at the growth habit it had, and how we might possibly convert that over to a system that we could trellis it and harvest it mechanically."

"They are in exactly the same place as where my grapes used to be."

Harvesting around four tonne in his first attempt last year, Mr Szabo anticipates to pick up to triple this amount from this year's crop.

He said although in the same spot his grapes once were, it had not been the easiest transition.

"The tree behind the house is six metres tall. You will never get that through a harvester, so we had to come up with a way to keep them small."

"It has not been a matter of just putting them in the ground. There is a whole trellising system and a whole pruning system."

At the forefront of an untapped industry

Mulberries are something many have nostalgic memories picking fresh off the odd tree, coating hands, clothes and faces with the dark red colouring in the fruit.

But in the commercial growing space, the number of large-scale growers is miniscule.

Mr Szabo said the boom in desire for both fresh and frozen berries had produced an opening for market opportunities.

"There is an ever increasing demand for fresh berries," he said.

"We have marketed some fruit previously and just picked our one tree out the back and sent it to market."

"I had some difficulties in managing grey mould in the punnets, and also finding enough labour."

The Ability To Experiment

Being a viticulturist, the obvious question is what does the future hold for a mulberry wine?

According to Mr Szabo, all his trials so far have proved unsuccessful.

"The only problem that we ran into was that it has got a very high fructose level, and the yeast does not really like fructose as much as they do glucose in grapes," he said.

"So they carry on a bit."

"But you see more and more examples of berries and fruit going into wine."

While mulberry wine could be a fair way down the track, Mr Szabo sees the ability to harness the fruit's nutrition through a myriad of other means.

"People remember as a kid you picked mulberries and you came out black. That colour is the anthocyanins, and that is a really strong antioxidant," he said.

"I can see a juice, or a portion of that going into a health drink, or you could use it into making tablets."

"We are also this year going to try making some mulberry leaf tea."

"It is quite an amazing plant when you look into it."

He said in an industry lacking large scale growers, the opportunities to experiment with different products were there for the taking.

"There is not too many producers, and it would be really good to be able to bounce ideas of other people, and even gain a mass if you are heading into market," Mr Szabo said.

"A lot of the food technologists I have worked with at Waite say 'I think you are starting a whole new industry here.'" ABC

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