AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program researcher spotlight: Peter Entwistle

16.10.20

Profitable tea tree production is under increasing pressure by insect pests and diseases in all growing regions in Australia. With the expansion of plantations, and the use of genetically improved trees, management of some of these pests is becoming increasingly challenging and diseases are also having a greater impact.  Peter Entwistle a tea tree agronomist for North East Agriculture Services is working with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, QLD on a new project, funded by the AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program, to identify and prioritise invertebrate pests and diseases in tea tree, and provide a blueprint for future research to combat them.

Why is this research project important?

Invertebrate pests, like beetles, caterpillars, leaf hoppers and psyllids es, can reduce tea tree plantation yields by up to 50% in any given season. The 2019-20 season saw large reductions in biomass production in the leaves and stems, of the tea tree plants because of late and sustained insect attack. This single period of attack reduced yields by 30% in some areas compared to those where treatments were applied. Several insect pests are becoming more difficult to control with the pesticides currently used and higher yield losses are expected to occur as a result.

Crop loss due to disease has become more prominent affecting plantation health and productivity. Higher yielding seed lines developed by industry plant breeding has indirectly led to increased disease development. The higher biomass and density of plantation trees provides a more favourable environment for the development of some pathogens. Up to 30% of leaf biomass grown can be lost. Understanding the biology of these pathogens is essential to the development of any management strategy.

As tea tree production increases in Australia and overseas, and subsequent price pressures start to impact, high yielding plantations developed and sustained through efficient farming will be the most profitable. A roadmap for research and development into the management of invertebrate pests and diseases will be contribute to this improved efficiency.

Why did you get involved in the project?

I have been involved with the tea tree industry for 20 years as a consulting agronomist. I service the majority of growers and in recent years I have seen an increase in difficult to manage agronomic issues. The current tools used to manage invertebrate pests and diseases are not as effective as they once were and, new strategies and tools are needed. Typically, the industry has developed new strategies and tools to address new challenges as required and this ad hoc approach has only tried to deal with individual issues. This study will identify the existing problems and develop a framework or blueprint for future research activities aimed at solving them.

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

This project will identify the critical issues in relation to invertebrate pests and diseases in the tea tree industries. The findings of this study will allow future research to be directed in a proactive and coordinated way that gives the best outcomes in terms of yield improvement and efficiency of production. The development of more effective tools and strategies to combat these problems will benefit all tea tree producers in Australia.

The process developed by the study will be of benefit to other small industries facing similar problems as they develop. Conversely, linking with research groups from other industry where native species are a focus, such as forestry, will be beneficial.

Peter Entwistle examining tea tree plants

 

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

As a private consulting agronomist to tea tree producers I have to help make a lot of decisions about how producers use their resources. Each grower is an individual in terms of how they want to farm and use their resources. Regardless of this variation the best advice I have probably ever received is to “Always spend other people’s money wisely”. I will continue to adhere to this advice as it has allowed me to build trust with the producers I service. I have developed strong, long term relationships with my clients as a result.

What have you learned about your industry from the growers/producers you have been involved with?

Tea tree growers come from very diverse backgrounds – a unique and appealing feature of this industry. This diversity brings all sorts of new ideas to growing tea tree, particularly when faced with new challenges. This, and the desire to achieve sustainable outcomes, will be valuable in the development of pest and disease management strategies that are currently facing the industry and new issues as they emerge.

For more about this project read the project summary here.