Camellia for Foliage, Flowers, Fruit & Tea
Australia now grows 30% of its domestic consumption of tea. It grows both the black and green varieties. The huge Japanese company Ito En is the partner in these enterprises.
Black tea is the mass-market product and, in Australia, is grown in the northern parts of the country. Green tea is grown for Japan's own home consumption.
This green tea industry is centred on Victoria although Tasmania is actively trying to get in on the act. I visited Audrey Gerber the scientist carrying out research work for the Australian Green Tea Growers Association and Ito En. She emphasised that all trials to develop tea in new areas should be comprehensive; rushing was a chief cause of initial failure. Too often plantings are rushed and the results not properly analysed. This creates an initial setback from which it is difficult to recover. Tea, once properly established, is in production for the extremely long term and the first 5-10 years are comparatively early days. Most growers and scientists consider the planting phase of any project to have been too quick with detrimental effects in the medium term.
The green tea plants in Australia are of three varieties: Yabukita (80% of total), Sayamakaori and Okuhikari. Yabukita tends to produce the highest quality tea although Sayamakaori yields slightly better in cooler climes. The initial plants were all brought from Japan and then propagated in Australia. The imported plants were treated with methyl bromide to prevent entry of the Kanzawa mite and other pests. This killed many of the imports but the survivors were successfully propagated.
Although the green tea industry of Australia is centred on Victoria (trials have been started in the south and the north east of the State) Tasmania did some planting in 1993.
Climatic difficulties have included frost damage and lack of suitable acid soil type free of organochlorine residue. The crop's first flush is ready in November - in Victoria - and is susceptible to late frost at that time.
Harvesting can be either by hand or by semi-mechanized methods. These latter are either hand held or mounted on modified tractors. Hand picking produces the highest grades of final product but labour costs are very high in Australia. Two-man Japanese style harvesters, illustrated, are used in small areas and a mounted tea-harvester, made in North Queensland, is used on larger estates. Williames Hi-Tech International Pty Ltd, in Victoria, are responsible for some leading harvesting technology. The innovator and owner of the business, Geoff Williames, is becoming recognised in the world of tea.
Mechanised picking is suitable for black tea but not yet really for the green variety. However a fascinating recent development is the "floating" picker, which is a complete break from other mechanised systems, and may be acceptable for green tea.
It appeared to me as an outsider that the fundamental mistake the Australians had made with their green tea production was to link it almost totally to the Japanese domestic market via Ito-En.