Opinion: This post was originally published on Stuff.
Japanese Film Crew on location with Sujon Boysenberry grower Glen Holland in his berry garden.
The struggling boysenberry industry has received a boost, with a Japanese company using fruit grown in Nelson as a key ingredient in a new eyesight health supplement.
It is thought to be the first time boysenberries, which are already used in folate supplements for pregnant women, have been used in such formulations.
It follows research done in Japan showing the fruit has 300 times the content of the naturally occurring polyphenol antioxidant ellagic acid than blueberries, which have been promoted as being good for eyesight.
The boysenberry-based capsule supplement is being marketed in Japan by Sunny Health Company using fruit grown by Glen and Maree Holland, of Tasman Bay Berry Company, and processed by Sujon at its factory in Tahunanui.
SPREADING THE WORD: Sujon managing director John Gibb and Sue Gibb filmed in their factory for a media campaign in Japan.
Sujon managing director John Gibb said it represented an exciting new opportunity for the boysenberry industry which had been hit by the exit of two its largest growers, Ranzau Horticulture and Berry Fields, after several seasons of poor returns and bad weather.
It was good to find another use for the fruit after the industry had “taken a hiding”, losing about 80 hectares of vines, two-thirds of its exports and some of its customers.
It meant that Sujon was now responsible for about 80 per cent of boysenberry exports of about 500 tonnes to Britain, Asia, Australia and the Pacific.
There were signs of recovery, with four or five growers resuming planting and demand more compatible with supply, but it was still a long way from 30 years ago when he first began growing berries, he said.
“Then, there were 180 growers. Now, I doubt there are 30.”
The deal with Sunny Health Company, which had an annual turnover of more than $60 million, would initially take just 4 per cent of Sujon’s boysenberry volume.
But this had the potential to quickly grow, with others also interested in using the fruit as a health supplement, Mr Gibb said.
It would help move the industry away from being price takers.
Sunny had spent the last years doing trials and consumer acceptance tests before deciding to commercialise it, which was a big step forward.
“Our own brand is 25 years old and one of the things you learn is that having a good product with the science behind it is good, but it’s not worth anything unless you have a bucket of money to raise awareness and take it to the consumer.”
Mr Gibb said it spoke volumes that Sunny had last week sent a television crew to Nelson to take footage for a media campaign in Japan.
As well as filming at the Sujon factory, the crew had interviewed the Hollands, boysenberry breeder Harvey Hall, Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne, a former berry grower, and a host of other Nelsonians.
He understood that Sunny would make up a six-minute TV commercial on the supplement.
While the Sujon brand was not on the packaging, a photo of the Hollands’ berry farm was, he said.
“People are looking for safe food and they want to make a connection with the farmer.”
Mr Gibb said his company, which produces a wide range of frozen berry products, purees and powders, had been trading well, with sales up more than 20 per cent in the last year and growth across all its markets.
It showed that the berryfruit was becoming a regular part of more people’s diet.
“You don’t know if consumers have bought into the health benefits of berryfruit until a recession comes along and you find out whether you are a discretionary item or not.”
However, it was still tough getting the message across even in an established market like Japan, he said.
“It’s a big ask to expect the consumer to believe that food can deliver something that drugs traditionally have, even though the facts are backed by science.”
Sujon continued to look for equity partners to help promote and distribute its products, Mr Gibb said.
“We are talking to people, but startup capital is short on the ground in New Zealand,” he said.
United States berryfruit consumption was still tiny at 3.5 kilograms per capita a year, compared with apples, bananas and oranges at about 80kg to 90kg, although he was confident that the release of further scientific research conducted in conjunction with Japanese universities and companies, particularly into the health benefits of blackcurrants, would see this rise significantly.
Sujon already produces blackcurrant powders that are used by elite athletes, including the Tall Blacks, and horse breeders in Britain, the Middle East and Japan to improve muscle recovery and performance.
It also held other patents.
Japanese film crew @ Local ice cream shop, Berrylands in Nelson making a Sujon Berryfruit icecream..YUM :-)
Over the next few years it expected to increase its exports from 20 per cent of its production to 80 per cent, he said.
It was concentrating on countries where exchange rates were not so volatile and on products that promoted berryfruit, rather than it being part of a mix.
The company was processing about 2500 tonnes of New Zealand and imported fruit a year, including 700 tonnes of blackcurrants and 600 tonnes of boysenberries, at its technologically advanced factory. It employed more than 20 staff, although that doubled during the berry season when it was freezing fruit 24 hours a day.
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