Extreme drought on the North Coast not helped by winter frost decimated North Coast tea tree oil production this year with supply unable to meet market demand.
Tea Tree Industry Association CEO Tony Larkman said there were a lot of worried growers with water running out and in some places worse. Meanwhile the association is lobbying to hold prices steady for the next five years to provide stability and security to buyers.
The serious growers with good partners continue to develop new plantations where the concern is for young seedlings, transplanted out the nursery. Richmond Valley contractor Rodney Rose said he had been watering up to twice a day in some places.
One recently established plantation near Ballina was trucking in town water to do the job, after drains in the paddock turned salty.
Near Rappville another organic grower lost a season's harvest when bushfire over-ran the property while piles of mulch and chicken manure at nearby Main Camp smouldered for days.
Salt concentrations reached a peak of 3500 microsiemens at Coraki on December 7, just shy of the 3800 limit above which cease to irrigate rules apply. By comparison, the Macleay at Bellgrave Falls recently recorded 800 microsiemens.
In the meantime, being the North Coast, recent storm rain has quelled the worst of it in quite a few places, pushing salt downriver for the moment. Never the less, this season has renewed interest in changing legislation that prohibits dam construction on the flood plain, with advocate Chris Magner, Tatham, calling for a rethink to help coastal farmers.
John Seccomb manages farms all over the North Coast and works with Chinese investors who own Main Camp. Original plans to burn coal during distillation was rejected by the backers who were willing to pay more for cleaner natural gas.
Mr Seccombe's home farm on 200ha of heavy alluvial soil at Greenridge, near Casino, owned in conjunction with his wife and a quarter share of Chinese interest, is in the process of planting new tea tree variety 4B at a cost of $8,000 a hectare into a bankless channel plantation that required $100,000 worth of surveying work just to map the slope.
The more expensive irrigation solution is expected to require a third less water compared to using siphons - about 300 kilolitres per hectare and, using corn as a measure, about 20pc more production.
"It's only a light inundation, about 30 to 50mm depth," he said.
As an industry, last year's harvest netted just over a 1008 tonnes, with all of that sold, while production this year will slide to 620t.
Association leader Tony Larkman said the danger in failing to meet the market meant opportunities for places like South Africa, where production is harvested by hand and 65 per cent of that is labelled organic.
To provide stability and security for the buyer, the Australian association will hold prices steady in a bid to keep some sort of upper hand on the uniquely Australian medicinal.
Australia exports around 90pc of its tea tree oil production with 54pc going to the US, Europe (30%), and Asia (14%).
"In places around Durban where they grow sugar cane, farmers have been diversifying into tea tree," said Mr Larkman recently returned from a visit to that country. "We don't want to invite them in. We have spent 20 and 30 years building up the industry here."
We have to look to the future and it will rain. We must maintain our competitive advantage when it comes to quality and productivity.
"We have to look to the future and it will rain. We must maintain our competitive advantage when it comes to quality and productivity.
New varieties have been bred from original Bungawalbyn bush varieties under the Association's guise since 1991, with yield per hectare more than doubling to a potential 500t/ha after four generations.
At Lismore's Southern Cross University, which recently was awarded another $1.6 million, four year agreement with industry to carry on research, a fifth generation is undergoing trials with seed available in about five years' time.
Known as the 'tea tree breeding program 2019-2023', this new four-year project, brings together the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association's AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program and Southern Cross University, and builds on the legacy of desirable traits identified and selected through the previous generations of the Tea Tree Breeding Program.
"It's not a quick job, with about eight years to establish a new variety," Mr Larkman said.
Planting and harvest contractor Rodney Rose, Codrington, says he has seen tea tree even more stressed than it is now, and he says the native plant is tough and resilient.
Recent unexpected falls of 30 and 40mm across parts of the Mid Richmond valley certainly came at the right time, but follow up of much more than 100mm is needed early in the new year.
Mr Rose recalls 2019 harvest as benefiting from excellent rain in October last year before a brutally dry January and February brought the plants up short. Some 100mm in March kicked growth into high gear before the weather cooled next month and was cruelled by frost in June. Plantations around Port Macquarie, which were dealing with even tougher drought were worst hit by the frost, with trees burnt to the ground, reducing yield by half
He said rain in the new year would benefit this year's crop, which has not put too much energy into biomass. The same thing happened in 2014 when late summer rain and a warm autumn lifted production in knee-high plants to near record levels.
Association head Mr Larkman agreed, saying summer rain would certainly lift production.