The Nerada Story
The Nerada Story
It was April Fool’s Day in 1882 when four young brothers – James, Herbert, Leonard and Sidney Cutten - rowed a boat down the Tully River in North Queensland, and then up the coast for more than 30 miles to discover Bingil Bay, the place to become known as the home of Nerada Tea, Australia’s largest tea grower.
Read on and discover the story of the great 'Aussie battlers' that pioneered the Australian tea industry.
It was April Fool’s Day, when four young brothers – James, Herbert, Leonard and Sidney Cutten - rowed a boat down the Tully River in North Queensland, and then up the coast for more than 30 miles to an area to become known as Bingil Bay – just over 100km south of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland. They applied for a land grant here.
The brothers received confirmation that title was granted for their selection. Over the next number of years they worked tirelessly to make their selection into a successful enterprise. This was not easy work.
All the hard work had to be undertaken by hand, but needless to say they were able to establish a timberworks, and plant as many tropical plants and seeds from ones that had grown in other parts of the British Empire – like Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India.
This included tea, coffee, chicory, coconuts, oranges, mangos, and pineapples, and later tobacco, ginger, pepper, spices of various kinds, and such exotics as Jack Fruit.
A cyclone crosses the Far North coast and severely damages the Cuttens’ house, crops and orchards. They begin to rebuild and salvage what they can.
The coffee and tea plantations had matured. The tea operation was not as successful as the coffee due to the lack of regular labour that was required to harvest the tea. However the coffee operations were a success with over 100 acres of coffee trees producing over 100,000 kilos of coffee a year. The brothers marketed their fruit and coffee and their farming empire would prosper over the coming years.
The drought of the century strikes the Far North. As the forest begins to dry out many of their crops die and production comes to a halt. Fortunately the farm recovered quite quickly once the drought broke.
The brothers start to experience labour shortages due to banana growers from China paying local labour in opium.
Another cyclone crosses the Far North coast almost destroying the whole enterprise. The brothers were forced to mortgage the property to pay for the repairs.
An enormous cyclone crosses the Far North coast creating widespread damage. At Bingil Bay the cyclone is accompanied by a tidal wave that has devastating consequences – virtually nothing remained of the Cutten brothers farming empire almost 40 years after it had begun.
Born in India in 1911, Dr Allan Maruff and his family migrated to Australia in the early 1950’s. He eventually settled in the sugar town of Innisfail, just south of Cairns, as a resident GP. He loved the beauty of the tropical environment and looked for ways to contribute to the area’s development. He and his wife agreed that the area reminded them of some of India’s tea growing regions. As an enthusiastic botanist he was now committed to the concept of developing a tea industry in the area. Sometime during this period he searched for and found the Cutten brothers’ farm.
What he found was that some of the tea plants had survived and had grown into huge trees over 15 metres in height deep in the rainforest. He also found widespread undergrowth of tea plants and seedlings that had grown from the seeds that had fallen from these enormous trees over the decades. He collected hundreds of seeds and seedlings and started a tea nursery behind his surgery in Innisfail. These tea plants in the rainforest at Bingil Bay still exist today over 100 years after the Cutten brothers first planted tea.
Dr Maruff buys 320 acres of land in the Nerada valley nestled in the foothills of the Cairns Highlands. The first rows of tea were planted from the seedlings that he had found at Bingil Bay. So started the first commercial tea plantings in Australia since 1886.
20 acres of tea had been planted and the Nerada plantation began to take shape. The foundation had been laid for a future tea industry in Australia. However in the same year drought struck and most of the plantlings died.
The plantlings thrived and there are now 30 acres of tea under cultivation. During this period Dr Maruff supplied seed from Nerada to assist in establishing a tea plantation in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Once established this plantation would play a vital role in supplying planting material to many plantations being established in New Guinea that would make up a substantial part of the tea industry in that country.
There were now 80 acres of thriving tea plants nearing maturity at Nerada with no means of efficiently harvesting the tealeaf. Over the next 2 years Dr Maruff and several local engineers started to explore and develop mechanical harvesting methods that were crucial to the industry if it were to stay viable and survive. The labour intensive method of hand picking the tea leaves used in all major tea producing countries could not be sustained in Australia.
A consortium of local business men led by Rod Taylor formed a company called Tea Estates of Australia (TEA) and commenced tea planting on a 200 acre property neighbouring the Nerada plantation.
A pioneering 5 tonne mechanical tea harvestor commenced trials at Nerada and proved to be successful. Dr Maruff now had the tea and the means to harvest it but had no way to manufacture it and no money to build a tea factory.
Dr Maruff interested the trading company Burns Philp in establishing a tea industry in Australia and together they formed a joint venture called Nerada Tea Estates (NTE). Burns Philp injected the necessary finances into the company for further expansion. The company commenced building the first tea-processing factory in Australia.
The Nerada tea factory opened. The tea that was produced was sold to tea packers and blenders in the southern States. The prices received were well below expectations and would not be able to sustain the company.
With the financial strain building on the company due to the inability to get higher tea prices the factory and plantation were closed on 30th June. Dr Allan Maruff the pioneer of the Australian tea industry was no longer involved in the industry he created.
TEA bought NTE’s assets. Now joined with the TEA plantation the total amount of tea under cultivation was about 240 acres. TEA also made the decision to stop selling bulk tea and instead market it under the Nerada brand in grocery stores.
A small packing factory is opened in Innisfail and the Nerada Tea brand was launched in the Queensland market. Throughout the 1970s Nerada Tea continued to expand with new tea plantings, improved harvesters and expansions to both the processing and packing factories. Pioneering advancements had also been made in the automation and mechanization of tea production.
Sadly, Dr Allan Maruff passes away. He will be remembered as the pioneer of the Australian tea industry who laid the foundations for one of the most modern and mechanized tea industries in the world.
1980s - 1990s
Nerada Tea is now available in all Australian States 96 years after the Cutten brothers had planted tea at Bingil Bay.
The 1980s saw the single biggest expansion of tea growing in Australia on the Cairns Highlands. This expansion required the building of a larger and more mechanized processing factory.
The new factory was built near the dairy town of Malanda at Glen Allyn, it was opened in 1991 by the then Premier of Queensland Wayne Goss.
With the increased production of tea, a new packing facility was also required. The new Nerada Tea packing factory was built in Brisbane and opened in 1992, it contained the latest in tea packing machinery.
Today there are more than 1,000 acres of tea planted on the Cairns Highlands delivering 6 million kilos of fresh tea leaves to the Nerada Tea processing factory every year. The processing factory at Glen Allyn turns these tea leaves into 1.5 million kilos of black tea and ships them to the Nerada Tea packing factory in Brisbane.
Nerada Tea is the largest supplier of Australian grown tea and the product range has expanded to include specially selected imported herbal infusions, green teas, flavoured teas and an innovative range of instant tea mixes.
Who knows, but one would think that the original pioneering Cutten family and Dr Maruff would all be justly proud to have been a part of the Nerada Tea story.
We would like to acknowledge and thank Rod Taylor for his hard work in researching and recording the history of the Australian Tea Industry in his book ‘The Lost Plantation’ from which this time line was based.