AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program researcher spotlight: Associate Professor Paul Kristiansen

13.04.21

Optimising plant nutrition and soil fertility in tea tree oil plantations is critical for effective crop management, ensuring maximum biomass production and oil yield, and producing high quality oil. Despite this, to date, there has been limited research in tea tree nutrition. Funded by the AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program, Associate Professor Paul Kristiansen and his team at the University of New England have commenced a scoping study to better understand current crop nutrition practices and best practice strategies. By benchmarking current practices and innovations, this study is one step towards more efficient and effective crop nutrition in Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) plantations.

Through a literature review and consultation with the industry, this project is documenting current tea tree nutrition management practices to determine their key limitations, and provide solutions for best management. The work aims to provide the industry and AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil program with a series of recommendations for further industry development in plant nutrition and soil fertility.

Why did you get involved in the project?

As a researcher in agriculture at the University of New England, I have long had an interest in high-value horticulture in Australia, including native medicinal plants. Tea tree oil is uniquely Australian, one of the few local species to have been successfully commercialised for global markets. The oil itself is natural and healthy, and I have used it for decades.

The tea tree oil industry is especially rewarding to work with — small but vibrant and friendly. The producers understand the value of investing in research and are open to adaptation.

Mr Robert Dyason (L) owns a tea tree plantation in Leeville, NSW. Here, he discusses plantation management with Associate Professor Paul Kristiansen (R), University of New England with smoke from the 2019-2020 bushfires still in the air.

How will this research benefit the tea tree oil industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry?

This scoping study will help to guide more detailed and extensive longer-term efforts to optimise tea tree nutrition strategies in plantations of different ages and on different soil types. In the longer term, this will make an important contribution to improved yield and profitability for all Australian tea tree oil producers. Helping the tea tree oil industry to address economic and sustainability issues related to crop nutrition and soil fertility will contribute to industry resilience and diversifying rural employment and business opportunities.

The outcomes may also be relevant to other perennial crops in Australia, including other essential oil crops, as well as tree, bush and vine crops. There is likely to be great potential to improve nutrition management in these crops. Many of these are individually relatively “small-scale” but when put together make a sizeable contribution to Australia’s agricultural production and job creation.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

I probably couldn’t pick one big gong moment. I think advice has come to me more generally from the school of life; like a big mosaic of a thousand little of good ideas. I am always listening to everyone (from the cleaner and farm-hand, to the boss in the office) and then filtering it through my own values and aspirations. It seeps in, and I change bit by bit.

What have you learned about the tea tree oil industry from the growers/producers you have been involved with?

In our work with the industry so far, we have learned several important things that I feel are relevant to all researchers working with this industry. There have been a couple of things that have resonated:

  • Despite outward appearances of homogeneity, every tea tree plantation is managed differently. Therefore, research outputs need to be flexible and adaptable to these different circumstances.
  • Tea tree oil producers are willing to learn and adopt new ways of thinking. Many have completed formal or informal on-farm trials to explore new management options. The industry is therefore likely to embrace changes that deliver proven productivity, efficiency and profitability benefits.

Learn more about this project here.