Grand plans to grow the tea tree oil market
Research and development provides new efficiencies
THE tea tree oil industry has been rapidly expanding in Australia, as increased production capabilities are paired with the growing popularity of natural products.
Dee-Ann Prather has been involved with the tea tree industry since her parents started their plantation near Lismore, 23 years ago.
When the tea tree oil industry faced a massive over-supply in the early 2000s, Mrs Prather helped her parents find a new market for their product in the United States, where she was living at the time.
Mrs Prather now runs her own business, Down Under Enterprises, where she sells wholesale essential oils, has her own tea tree oil plantation with her husband Phil, and is also part of the AgriFutures tea tree advisory panel.
AgriFutures and the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association have had a tea tree breeding program for 25 years.
“It effectively is selective breeding. We’ve been able to get massive efficiencies and the production has increased,” she said.
Although tea tree is native to Australia, there is also some production in China, South Africa and Kenya.
Mrs Prather said research and development helps Australia stay ahead of the market.
“Tea tree is such an iconic essential oil. It (R&D) helps us to stay ahead of the market,” she said.
“Australia is the biggest producer by far. We produce about 900 tonnes a year.
“There is a five-year plan that Agrifutures and the ATTIA have in place, which is to produce 1500 tonnes of tea tree oil over the next five years.
“If we increase production to that, we need to make sure the market is there to accept the increase.”
Mrs Prather said she does believe the industry will reach the goal.
“There are more farmers planting tea tree and existing farms are planting more,” she said.
“The new trees are higher yielding and we are also able to select trees that are more frost resistant, so we are more efficient.”
A 25c per kilo levy from producers’ tea tree oil profits, also goes to R&D.
“The money from the levy goes to AgriFutures and the tea tree advisory panel works out how to best spend the money for the industry – improving supply, improving demand and extension.”
❝such Tea tree is an iconic essential oil. It (R&D) helps us to stay ahead of the market.
— Dee-Ann Prather
PRODUCING TEA TREE OIL
TEA tree plants grow to about 18 months old before they are harvested.
“We harvest it close to the ground. The whole tree is chopped up and put into the harvester bin,” she said.
“That bin is taken to a distillery where the biomass undergoes steam distillation.
“The lid on the bin is tied down so steam doesn’t escape. A tube goes into the bin and as steam goes up, it breaks the sack of the tea tree leaf.
“It travels into a condenser that cools the liquid down. It goes into a separator, to separate the oil and water, which happens naturally, and the oil is tapped off.”
Mrs Prather said through R&D in breeding, tea tree oil production has seen a huge increase.
“The old farms, like my mum and dad’s for example, produce around 150kg per hectare,” she said.
“But the newer plantations, like ours, yield about 450kg
Tea tree is usually harvested once a year.
“It’s generally harvested between June and September,” Mrs Prather said.
“But it’s subject to weather and can start earlier or finish later.
“Our harvest this year was brilliant.
“We’re a relatively new farm. We had one small harvest, a year before last. Then we had a bigger harvest in May this year, and we had really good yields.
“Now we have our own farm we are very vertically integrated. We spend a lot of time making sure we have new markets.”
TREMENDOUS OIL: A tea tree plantation being harvested.
Dee-Ann Prather holding harvested tea tree plants.