Cold and dry weather hammer Australia's largest tea plantation

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Australia’s biggest tea producer is reeling from two consecutive seasons of frost and drought, hampering its production in north Queensland.

Tea key points

Key points:

  • Nerada, Australia’s biggest tea producer, estimates losses of approximatelt $1 million over the past year
  • This is due to a combination of severe frosts over winter followed by no rain in summer, over two consecutive seasons
  • Nerada currently has an 8 per cent market share but hope that will conditions improve to see that raised to 15 per cent

Plantation manager Tony Poyner said Nerada produces between 1.2 to 1.5 million kilograms of black tea at its farms on the fertile Atherton Tablelands, but production was becoming tougher.

“Last year was a devastating year: two severe frosts over the whole estate, but no rain to follow up was the real problem,” he said.

With growing fears about the effect changing global temperatures are having on farm production, tea is one industry at the forefront of climate change in Australia.

“I have seen a change … last year we were using the word alarming but it seems to have swung back in this cycle this year,” Mr Poyner said.

“What we’re seeing is longer, dry ends-of-years, fairly decent monsoons, but then, June/July, right through to Christmas, we’re not seeing that early monsoonal activity.

“That’s a trend I’ve noticed in the last 10 years, and I’m hoping that doesn’t continue and that this year snaps that cycle and we see good spring rains,” Mr Poyner said.

Fresh tea tips are especially vulnerable to frost and can be burnt by cold weather.

Competition ‘cutthroat’

Mr Poyner said as the largest grower in Australia, Nerada has 8 per cent of the market share, but imports still dominate the domestic market.

“We’d like nothing more than to be able to push that up in the next decade to 15 per cent or more,” he said.

To target the growing Australian tea market, now worth more than $300 million annually, Mr Poyner said sustainability is a key selling point.

“We’ve got Rainforest Alliance certification, so we’re the only company in the country so far that’s achieved that,” he said.

“Realistically, it is a high-volume, low-margins market, it’s a very, very cutthroat business to be in, like all farming: it’s a competitive market.”

More than 1.5 million kilograms of black tea is produced at the Nerada Tea plantation.

However new country of origin labelling laws, that aimed to improve consumer education when introduced last year have failed to hit the mark according to Nerada.

“I’d urge the public … have a look at the packet when you’re purchasing your next box, and if it says ‘from local and imported products’ … that means local to the country that it’s packed in,” Mr Poyner said.

“Have a look at where your tea comes from. There’s very little coming from Australia.”