Most of us have childhood memories of climbing the twisted boughs of a mulberry tree, our shirts and hands stained black with the berry’s tart juice. With those memories as sweet as the berries themselves, there’s little wonder demand for this ‘king of the lost fruit’ is fast growing. South Australian grower, Peter Szabo is one of Australia’s only commercial mulberry producers – harnessing the power of nostalgia when crafting his product.
A yearning for a holiday in 2010 sparked a career diversification for Peter Szabo.
The South Australian viticulturalist and his wife, Kerry, wanted to take their five children on holiday to Queensland, but didn’t have the funds. An eight-metre wide, 70-year-old mulberry tree in the backyard of their small farm, ‘Nockburra’ at Kingston on Murray provided the answer.
“We thought we might pick the mulberries and take them to market, and see if we could make enough money to go on holidays,” Peter says.
“We all spent the September school holidays picking the berries – and we made enough money from this one tree to send us all to Queensland.”
The experiment came at the perfect time. Peter and Kerry had planted nearly 30 acres of vineyard on their farm, just as Australia’s worst downturn in grape growing began.
All my investments were in grapes. It made me realise that a business needs to be like a donkey. If the donkey only has one leg, it’s going to be pretty unstable. We needed to start adding legs to our donkey.
To Peter’s surprise, the Szabo mulberry business had legs. But a penchant for grey mould meant distributing berries fresh was out of the question.
“I’m not big on spraying and I just could not keep the grey mould out. It was devastating,” Peter says.
“I thought, there’s got to be a different way of doing this. My skills are growing grapes and mechanised grape growing. So I took my skills in that and swung it over to mechanising the production of mulberries.”
Peter’s path to viticulture had been something of a full circle. The son of a grape grower, Peter’s passion for livestock took him away from the vineyards to work in feedlots and in stock feed for nearly 10-years. A diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma brought him back home to the Riverland region.
“Thankfully, I’ve been in remission for a long time, but scarring on my lungs meant working with livestock wasn’t advisable,” he says.
“I moved back to my hometown and started working at Banrock Station as an irrigation manager. They sent me back to university to study viticulture, and once I graduated I moved across to Berri Estate, where I’ve been for 21-years. We’re Australia’s largest winery, with 540 growers supplying 220,000 tonnes of fruit.”
While working full time at Berri Estate, Peter started to play around with his own fruit production on weekends. Over the course of six years, Peter removed 10-acres of chardonnay grapes, replacing them with mulberries. Traditionally used for silkworm production in Asia, Peter figured out how to espalier the trees onto a trellis system – then came the challenge of harvest.
Mulberries are incredibly fragile. We bought a second hand grape harvester which I’ve modified to be very gentle. I developed the system so it would pick the right fruit at the right time – we go over the bushes five times, compared to grapes which you go over just once
During the annual October harvest, Peter will start picking at 2am, packing the berries at daybreak and freezing them by 10am. The mulberries are then distributed frozen to food manufacturers and other industries across the country.
“We’ve developed a bit of a packaging line in one of our sheds to start looking at vertically integrating a little bit. It’s a big jump from marketing from a wholesale product and other people making stuff, compared to making stuff yourself,” he says.
“Because we’re brand new in Australia – and I believe we’re the only grower in Australia like us – it’s hard to find out how to get into market and how you’ll be perceived.”
However, recent media showcasing his mulberry production has created a stir in potential consumers. With his berries featured in boutique gins and jams, Peter is now fielding calls directly from the public, wanting to know how they can get their hands on his fruit.
Again and again I hear the same story, and that’s how nostalgia shapes our relationship with food. Everybody tells me how they used to climb their grandparent’s mulberry tree when they were kids and end up stained black with mulberry juice.
With the potential to produce 50-tonnes of mulberries annually, Peter is looking to the future of the fruit.
On the cards is an online store with products like mulberry paste and jam making kits, while the intrepid farmer is also researching the possibility of harvesting mulberry leaves for medicinal tea.
“I challenge myself all the time to do things better, doing things differently, and I get a lot of reward out of challenging myself like that. The mulberries have been my biggest personal and mental challenge, because we’ve had to develop an entire system,” Peter says.
“There are days when you’re holding your head in your hands going, what the hell have I done! But there are also days where you go, this is all working the way I thought it would. And there’s real satisfaction in that.”