Northern Rivers tea tree growers unite at annual forum

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Known for its picturesque coastlines, tranquil rivers and rainforest drives, the Northern Rivers is also well-known for its quality agricultural production, including being home to the majority of Australia’s 140 producers of pure Australian tea tree.

The global market for tea tree oil is expected to grow significantly over the next decade, propelled by demand from millennials and emerging markets.

And while only a small number of producers exist in Australia today, growing and harvesting tea trees on a mere 5000 hectares, they are driven to increase yield and efficiencies to meet the growing demand.

Producers and agronomists from across the Northern Rivers gathered on February 23, 2023 for the second annual Knowledge to Know How forum, held in Casino, New South Wales.

The forum was organised by the industry’s enhanced extension for the Australian tea tree oil industry project, funded through the AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program with the support of the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association Ltd (ATTIA), and Farmacist Pty Ltd. The project is led by Farmacist agronomist and Tea Tree Extension Officer, Alice Moore. It aims to connect producers with industry experts and provide critical information to support healthier crops.

Twelve months on from the first of two devastating floods that decimated many Northern Rivers tea tree oil plantations, machinery, equipment, and housing, tea tree growers are still very much in recovery mode. This year’s forum shone a light on supporting growers by providing information on soil health and recovery, and crop disease.

Meet the 2023 lineup

A team of world-class researchers headed up the 2023 Knowledge to Know How forum including;

  • Dr Lukas Lukas Van Zwieten, a senior researcher with NSW DPI and the Program Leader for Integrated Soil Management Solutions at the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils (Soils CRC)
  • Professor Terry Rose, a senior researcher at Southern Cross University who has a diverse knowledge in nutrition covering cropping, nitrogen efficiency, plant health and impacts of soil amendments on soils and crops across a range of pasture and cropping systems.
  • Jay Anderson, a plant pathologist at Southern Cross University who has worked on diseases of tropical and subtropical crops for more than 15 years. Jay’s research is aimed at better understanding (mostly) fungal diseases to develop control measures that are practical for growers to implement.

“To have these incredible researchers right here on our doorstep at Southern Cross University and the fact that we could just pop in a soil pit with them during this forum and talk through things that they’re seeing, it was just amazing,” Alice said.

“Some of the soil pits were only 100 metres apart from each other but they were vastly different soil types, so to have that kind of experience and knowledge was invaluable for growers.”

Technologies leading the way

The next generation of soil technologies aimed at addressing constraints and soil health took centre stage during Dr Van Zwieten’s presentation.

The latest research and results of alternative soil technologies being investigated by the Soils CRC – and the potential application and benefits to tea tree production – had growers captivated.

“There was certainly a lot of curiosity about how these things are developed,” Alice said.

“For example, there’s an engineered version of biochar being trialled that is actually engineered specifically for the site.

“Researchers did a soil characteristic assessment on site and then made the biochar specifically to remediate that site. It’s pretty incredible.”

While these technologies haven’t been trialled in the tea tree space, Alice said its future benefits are significant. Dr Lukas Van Zwieten shared an array of next generation soil technologies for addressing constraints and soil health, including nano gypsum trials underway to deal with subsurface acidity.

Thriving environment, thriving future

When growing crops – no matter what kind – it’s simply a matter of time before problems begin to pop up. Whether it’s issues caused by diseases, insects, pesticide phytotoxicities, or moisture, to fix a problem growers need to know what it is and what’s causing it – enter the disease triangle.

This concept points out that three favourable conditions must coexist to cause a disease problem; a pathogen, a susceptible host (plant) and proper environmental conditions. If any one of the three factors is missing, the triangle is not complete and no disease will occur.

“Jay Anderson really narrowed in on the disease triangle,” Alice said. “She talked about the different pathogens that you find in tea tree such as rapid, premature leaf drop, and the different modes of actions or fungicides we can implement.

“We can’t always target the pathogen so it’s important that we make little changes to our environment that make it impossible for pathogens to thrive.”

Nutrition key to unlocking profitability

While Australia typically produces in excess of 720MT of tea tree oil annually, with a farm gate value of $30 million, there’s still significant knowledge gaps when it comes to nutrition.

“Professor Terry Rose really highlighted how little we actually know about tea tree nutrition. There was some research done in the late 1990s and early 2000s but it hasn’t been followed up since then so it’s a really critical area for the industry to focus on,” Alice said.

“His advice was that for tea tree we really need to consider lead testing for nutrient status, not just soil test the top 10 centimetres as is typical practice across most industries.”

Professor Rose also shared results from some of his research on tea tree mulch. After harvesting tea trees, the remaining spent leaf mulch features a significant amount of potassium that can cause major salinity issues to the ground beneath the mulch pile. However, if the runoff is captured it can also be liquid gold – just so long as it returns to the paddock as quickly as possible.

Road to recovery after floods

While it’s an industry with substantial potential, last year’s flooding in the Northern Rivers has left tea tree producers with enormous hurdles and challenges to overcome.

“The forum really provided an opportunity for growers to talk through some of the biggest challenges like what cultivation practices we should be using to break down the root mass to get to a state where it can be levelled to even think about planting again,” Alice said.

Additionally, this year’s harvest is looking to be half the production of the previous year, and one of the only Australian nurseries supplying ATTIA approved seed for the tea tree industry was also badly damaged in the floods, resulting in a severe seedling shortage.

“These are some really tricky situations the tea tree industry is facing and there’s certainly some nervousness felt by growers about their future, but that’s what makes this forum so important,” Alice said.

“Before this project there hadn’t been events like this available for the industry for a really long time so to get people together to share ideas and try new things is crucial for the industry to recover and really thrive.”

Find out more about the AgriFutures Australia Tea Tree Oil Program

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