(Box: Lemon Scented Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) is a medium sized tree found on the East coast of the country, typically in tropical and subtropical rainforest with rich, organic, sandy to heavy textured soils. The leaves exhibit a wonderfully strong citrus flavour and aroma, now used extensively in the bushfood industry.)
For a former petroleum geologist, Dennis Archer seems a pretty contented farmer. Scooting around his 100 acre farm at Goomboorian (outside of Gympie), you get the sense of a man who would rather be working with things on the ground rather than below it.
“You want the Cook’s tour? Come on.”
Dennis has obviously done this before, no doubt many times. The fact that his farm is one of the larger Lemon Scented Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) plantations in Australia probably has something to do with it. In agri-business terms, this isn’t a massive operation, but in the emerging bushfood industry, it’s one of the bigger plantings and certainly one of Queensland’s largest single crop bushfood plantations.
From petro-geologist to bushfood grower seems a large leap but Dennis is quick to point out that his partner Rose was a major factor,
“Rose had been an organic farmer for many years. When I met her, she had an organic farm at Peachester (north of Brisbane). Avocados and custard apples. She had basically outgrown that farm and we began to look for land further north. Goomboorian was ideal. Still is.”
Originally, Dennis and Rose looked at Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Then, a chance meeting with a friend who happened to mention Lemon scented myrtle got them investigating this plant.
“Very few people were growing it. Tea tree was a good crop and remains one but we felt we wanted to move into an area which wasn’t crowded.”
At this time (1991) knowledge and use of Lemon scented myrtle was certainly scarce. Dennis began to research the plant, writing out A4 pages of notes in longhand and gathering references wherever he could find them.
“We call it BC - Backhousia citriodora is too long and unfortunately, many people shorten the common name to Lemon myrtle. BC has some fascinating attributes. For instance, lemon contains around 2%-5% citral. BC can contain 90% citral. BC is definitely the world’s best natural citral. We’re still finding new characteristics and uses. It’s most commonly used as a flavouring or a tea but it’s also bactericidal and fungicidal. It’s a fantastic cleaning compound and, can be used in aromatherapy, as a natural insect repellent of course, it’s the base for a rather unique perfume and aftershave.”
With his primary research completed, Dennis went on to investigate distillation.
“I saw this as a major challenge but an exciting one - to get a new essential oil on the market which no one knew anything about. It’s the same sort of challenge many in the bushfood industry are facing - finding the right species, finding management or horticultural information, harvesting techniques, storage…and then educating the market to want the product!”
With BC, Dennis believes that their eight years of hard work to date are just the start.
“We wanted to grow it on organic lines and there were no guidelines for this crop. We had to look at what we had as a base resource and what inputs we were willing to contribute and then - basically - give it a go.”
The Goomboorian area has good shale soil with sedimentary patches. Rainfall is around the 40” per annum mark and Dennis and Rose’s farm gets little frost. Much of the block is rolling to steep. It was a bean farm originally and much of the soil was depleted.
Dennis did a deep strip rip for his first planting and then let it sit for twelve months. He slashed and did a second rip and then rotary hoed the strips. A fine tilth was needed as the seedlings were small.
“After that we put them in the ground, mulched and watered them and that was it.”
Maintenance consists of slashing and mulching. Dennis recommends soyabean or soya stubble for mulch. He mulches up to the drip line and right up to the trunk. The only other input is dehydrated chook poo - but only when the plants indicate the need by such signs as yellowing or slow growth. Dennis favours overhead watering,
“Drip lines can give you lots of problems when you’re slashing and mechanically harvesting - you can spend half your time repairing slashed lines! Besides - overhead watering is the way nature does it. It gives the trees a wash and revigorates them.”
Dennis has planted discrete areas and named each (BC1, BC2 etc). No two plantings are exactly the same and riding through the ‘orchard’ with him, the apparently haphazard design took on a pattern,
The first planting, put in the ground in 1991, was a fairly conventional 2.5m x 1.5 m spacing. Inter-row maintenance consisted of hand slashing but now that the trees have formed a closed canopy even this is not needed. “Look up that row there - where you see weeds, we’ve lost a tree and sunlight’s getting through.”
This first planting had a uniform size and shape, the result of years of harvesting. A part of one row had been coppiced six weeks before to fill a small order. The regrowth was extremely strong, due in part to a wet spring.
Stock for the first planting (1000 trees) came from a nursery in Yandina who happened to have an excess of seedlings. I asked him if the stock was selected for leaf oil content,
“Absolutely not! But that’s another story - I’ll fill you in when we look at the distillation set-up.”
We moved on to the next block, a planting so dense it didn’t appear to have any rows at all. Bending down to ground level, however, you could see the closely spaced trunks followed a straight line.
“We’ve planted this block just as they do tea - real thick. It was an experiment and on the whole it’s worked. Good bushy growth, not too much wood - the drawback is we can’t get the overhead harvester in so we have to harvest by hand.”
The inter-row overhead harvester was the only large piece of machinery on the farm, used for large orders. Small orders are still hand harvested.
Further on there were three block plantings, side by side. To my eye, the left-most block looked the sadder of the three, a tinge of yellow to the leaves and less leaf density. As well, the block was knee high in grass and weeds.
“Here’s another of our trials - nil maintenance. We mulched when the trees went in and then left them. It doesn’t look as pretty as the slashed blocks but the end product is pretty much the same. It has a little more pest damage but that’s also to do with its location.”
The middle and right hand blocks were more similar in style but there was a subtle difference.
“Spot the seedling block and the cutting block.” Dennis challenged. The right-most block had more uniformity of shape and size so I chose that as the cutting block. Lucky choice. I asked Dennis if he preferred cuttings to seedlings,
“No, I’d go with the seedlings. We need the genetic diversity and seedling stock comes on faster.”
This brought us back to leaf oil content but Dennis had one more trial to show me before we visited the distillation shed to talk oils.
Near the house, three or four trees had been planted in haphazard fashion. To my eye they looked much the same but Dennis pointed out a central tree.
“That’s our control tree. Never been harvested or pruned. Look at how much wood there is in relation to leaf…substantial difference. The trees around it have been hand harvested and you’ll notice they have less wood but still much more than the production plantings which have been coppiced.”
Dennis and Rose put in a second planting of 1000 trees in 1992 and have continued to plant out new blocks since then. They began their first commercial distillation in 1993.
The shed and the still were obviously his pride and joy.
“Simple system - biomass goes in the pot and the lid’s screwed on. Pipe going in the bottom there comes off a 16hp diesel steam generator. Vapour goes up into the condenser and down into the separator where the oil is drawn off.”
Stainless steel was used throughout for ease of cleaning and its non-reactive properties. BC oil can be particularly corrosive and can’t be allowed to come into contact with synthetics or rubber. Dennis stores no oil,
“I distil to order only, don’t keep any stocks of oil on hand. My stock stays on the trees till it’s needed.”
And the market?
“Well, as I said, we’ve done eight hard years and we’re really just starting. However, we’re now exporting oil and starting to fill some sizeable orders. There’s a lot of work to be done still.”
At present, BC oil is used almost exclusively as a food flavouring but Dennis is excited about its potential in other areas,
“According to the Rideal-Walker test for germicide activity, which is admittedly quite an old one, BC is a better bactericide than tea tree oil. I also see potential for its use as a natural insect repellent and we’ve got a few other projects underway as well.”
So how about selection for leaf oil content?
“I know a lot’s been said and written about choosing selected cutting grown stock to get this amount of oil content or that amount of oil content but here’s how I look at it - we’ve got a vineyard here. Our plants are going to perform in a very individual way, according to the soil and the aspect and the climate - a Shiraz grape grown in Europe is not going to give you the same wine as one grown in South Australia. You can spend a lot of time and money investing for leaf oil content and, at the end of the day, wonder if you’re really that far ahead.”
The properties’ name - ‘Toona’ - is also the name of a perfume and aftershave Dennis has created from BC. Both have the very fresh lemony base aroma of the leaf. The aftershave has a slightly more peppery tang to it.
“I very purposefully chose a vertical integration design. If we were simply harvesting the leaf and selling it to processors, I doubt we’d be economically viable. The same goes for drying or drying and grinding. This is a new product. You can’t simply say to the market, ‘here it is, come and get it.’ You have to give the market a product it needs or one which is new and fills a niche. My background in chemistry has come in handy even though we don’t use any chemicals on the plantation!”
For the future, Dennis sees a slowly slowly approach.
“I’d love to think that one day I’ll wake up and find the whole world wants BC oil, but is that likely? One step at a time. Find your market, perfect your product, refine your production methods so you can meet market demand and keep selling. This is a good product. We’ve only just touched the surface of its potential uses but I’m happy to see the business growing little by little. What we don’t want in this industry is a boom and bust.”
For those interested in Lemon scented myrtle, Dennis recommends a trial planting of around 100 plants. After 12 months, you’ll know if they’re going to perform. The size and design of a full production planting will depend on resources and the grower’s confidence in the market.
Dennis and Rose are certainly confident. They have over 5000 trees in the ground now and they’re still planting - and experimenting.
Toona Essential Oils
PO Box 754
Ph: 07 5486 5216