Family calls time on ‘gangbusters’ berry haven loved by top chef Matt Golinski

Family calls time on ‘gangbusters’ berry haven loved by top chef Matt Golinski

About three tonnes of spray-free blueberries are being enjoyed by wild birds after a popular Queensland agritourism destination closed.

Family-owned Cooloola Berries grew seasonal strawberries and blueberries. At its height it employed 23 staff and operated a farm café seven days a week.

Tourists from as far afield as Brisbane would head to Wolvi, south-east of Gympie to pick their own fruit and enjoy homemade strawberry ice-creams, cider, scones, strawberry jam, and Sunday paella sessions.

Kim, Jason, Patrick, Kay, Molly and Gary Lewis in 2018.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Family legacy

Fourth-generation farmer Jason Lewis and his wife Kim started the business from scratch 17 years ago with support from his parents and their children.

“I really understand we’ve left a big hole in the community, but it just wasn’t something we could continue with,” Mr Lewis said.

Cooloola Berries’ popular farm cafe has closed.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“It was too successful; we’d envisaged opening a little café at a farm that my wife and I could stand and serve and have this nice little lifestyle, but it became a demanding business.

“We would get 200-300 people every Sunday at least for lunch and breakfast, it is a hard business to run a farm alone, we have a café which was also hard to run and we also did value-added products very well.”

Cooloola Berries’ 2024 blueberry crop was not picked.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

He said his blueberries weren’t worth picking, with supermarkets selling them for $2 or less a punnet.

He said successive floods, hail storms and drought had also taken a toll on their stress levels.

Jason Lewis was a fourth-generation farmer.(ABC News: Jennifer Nichols)

“It’s been the first time in a long time where I’ve listened to a weather forecast and not had to think about the 100 different tasks that I have to do and what will happen if I don’t do them,” Mr Lewis said.

“We’re only a small-scale farm but the whole farm revolved around what we grew so the weather was the key to our success.”

Mr Lewis said the cost of running the business had increased and he didn’t want to put prices up for the families and pensioners who came to the farm.

“We’ve forged a lot of friendships over the years with people, we’ve seen kids come for every birthday, people come for every Mother’s Day,” he said.

Chef’s tribute

Respected chef Matt Golinski expressed his dismay after hearing his friends were closing their business.

Matt Golinski and Jason Lewis advocate for the international Slow Food movement.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“I honestly did nearly cry when I found out because one of my favourite things that I wait for each year to come into season is the Cooloola Berries, and so to me, it was really sad,” Mr Golinski said.

But he said he understood it was time for them the family to move on.

“When you look at how much work is involved and how much expertise Jason has, so many years of experience and that was why he was able to make it work so successfully,” he said.

“He worked his butt off, they both did for all those years, it’s not just growing strawberries, but running a café and everything else they were doing.”

Jason Lewis regularly cooked paella for hundreds of people.(Supplied: Cooloola Berries)

Mr Lewis has also stepped down as the president of Slow Food Noosa.

He said he remained a great believer in the International Slow Food movement which celebrated fair, clean and regenerative local food production.

Nicola Cleaver and Andy Coates own Amrita Park Meadery at Pomona.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Industry respect

Amrita Parks Meadery owner Andy Coates has stepped up to take on the position of Slow Food Noosa president.

“The way that those guys were just gangbusters seven days a week, I don’t know how they did it for as long as they did,” Mr Coates said.

“They were much loved by the community so the whole community is sad to see them go,” Mr Coates said.

Bryant and Susie Ussher farm gourmet mushrooms and pasture-raised beef.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“They were great advocates for local products and for our local industry,” Eastwell Farms owner Susie Ussher said of the Lewis family.

“They’ve worked so hard and I imagine it was very demanding for them working seven days a week.”

Kim and Jason Lewis with their blueberry and strawberry “no-waste” cider in 2018.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Mr Lewis said he and his wife had received hundreds of Facebook messages, phone calls and texts from people reaching out to make sure they and their family were OK.

“Everything is fine and some of the messages are heart string stuff,” Mr Lewis said.

“I’d like to thank everybody who’s come on our journey with Cooloola Berries, it’s been a business where you have to enjoy people and I have enjoyed everybody.”

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