Incredible demand for germ-busting products from North American consumers will again absorb most of the Northern Rivers' tea tree oil harvest.
Australian Tea Tree Industry Association chief executive officer Tony Larkman said this year's anticipated accumulation of 1200 tonnes of pure tea tree oil from the 2021 harvest, which is now in full swing, is expected to be sold before harvest re-commences in 2022.
North America takes about 59 per cent of Australian production with demand nearly doubling to 606t since 2015, largely as a result the popularity of 100 per cent pure Australian Tea Tree Oil with its known efficacy and safety.
A decade of work by ATTIA to inform manufacturers and consumers of fake oils from the market has also played a role. This is an onerous task, considering that rip-off products continue to pop up on EBay and Amazon.
Mr Larkman says fake tea tree oil has declined from 50pc of product to 20pc since 2011.
In Europe, the figure remains at 35pc - too high he says - and may account in part for static sales in that region, although Europe is only just opening up again after extended pandemic lock-down.
Chiral testing of oil to determine purity has been a success and blockchain work will soon resume to trace oil back to the grower.
Last year's total tonnage was similar, about 1100 tonnes, with 606t going to the US and Canada and none left in storage.
"When COVID-19 hit they were howling for more," recalled Mr Larkman.
"Demand is massive but even with no carry-over of supply I believe we have kept most of our customers happy."
At Jonathan Bryant's processing plant at West Coraki, which services up to 20 growers as part of a local co-operative that goes by the name of the Australian Tea Tree Oil Exchange, distillation of forage-chopped plant material takes part in 11-tonne stainless steel biomass bins which are saturated with steam under pressure at a constant temperature of 42 degrees C.
The vapourised volatile oils are cooled in a heat exchanger - in the same way conjurers of spirit make whiskey.
A full bin produces about 110 litres of new oil after a two hour steam bath. New varieties of tea tree produce 140l - a 27pc increase thanks to genetic gain.
After initial collection the oil is left to sit in 8-tonne tanks for a few days, allowing excess water to drain out of the product and if it is to be stored it is done so in insulated tanks to keep the commodity at an even temperature to prevent oxidisation. This year those storage tanks will remain empty as ready oil is shipped overseas as soon as it is ready.
While halting ship movements, port log-jams and a shortage of now expensive shipping containers continue to impact logistics at the production end of the supply chain, the real issue is a lack of little apothecary bottles and spun aluminium containers to market the oil to retail consumers, as India is the go-to location for such items.
"Shipping right now is a real bastard," said Mr Larkman. "And Indian glass bottle manufacturers can't supply us with 25ml to two litre sizes because what they do have is reserved for laboratories.
"However, we believe our market is strong enough to weather the bottleneck. There is demand for products with anti-viral properties."
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