How berry farmers went from 'hailnado' to season ready
WINTER has flicked the switch on the region's strawberry season, with the farm gate at Cooloola Berries opening to the public any day now for the annual "pick your own" experience.
But it's not just the bite in the air giving berry farmers Kim and Jason Lewis something to smile about.
Eight months on from the hail-charged super storm that hit the Gympie region last October and cost the berry farmers significantly last summer, a winning combination of innovative ideas in food tourism is bringing sweet success to the Wolvi-based farm business.
The farm's blueberry crop was wiped out - robbing the Lewises of their "pick your own" summer crop and diminishing frozen product supplies for the year.
However, community support in customer numbers and the quick turnaround nature of strawberry production limited the damage.
"We're very fortunate with strawberries - they are a quick turnaround," Mrs Lewis said.
"It's six weeks from planting to picking - for small cropping it's a fast return. Avocados and macadamia (farms) in our area - they will carry those effects (of the hail storm) for up to two years."
Now the Lewises are ready to storm into strawberry season with a calendar full of events for foodies.
Cooloola Berries launched the Farmer's Table breakfast and farm tour last month.
Running every Sunday during strawberry season, the event includes a berry trail tour and the chance to talk to the Lewises who join guests at the long table buffet breakfast, Mrs Lewis said.
The introduction of online bookings and a partnership with Active Tours and Transfers has boosted customer numbers to the farm and its adjoining cafe.
Mrs Lewis said meeting the market with flexibility had been key to business growth.
"We're a small farm and we can make the most of weather conditions and market prices," she said.
"We're able to grow varieties that we prefer - a wide range of varieties - that is how we cope better with the weather.
"We employ local staff, grow for flavour and sell our fruit directly from the farm to local shops and restaurants."
Queensland Strawberries recently visited the Wolvi farm, while national television came knocking earlier in the year with a feature set to air on Channel 10 lifestyle show The Living Room later this year.
"We are being recognised as a food destination and we are being very innovative in the offer of food tourism.
"We are taking up those opportunities."
Cooloola Berries' presence in last month's Noosa Food & Wine Festival was a positive eye-opener, Mrs Lewis said.
"The (high) level of people that approached us was astounding," she said.
"We're still small, but obviously we want to be good at being small."