Meet Bill Benson – the farmer who made Nerada what it is today
Like any Australian agriculture company, the story of Nerada Tea has tales of trials and tribulations, and good old-fashioned hard yakka. It’s fair to say though that many of the innovations and techniques that have allowed Nerada to prosper today are due to the pioneering nature of one individual – Bill Benson. Bill is the sort of character that legends are made of. A true-blue Australian farmer, with a vision that is at the heart of the Nerada story. Despite not having any tea-growing experience, he toiled the land, being given free range to think outside the box to establish a plantation and manufacture innovative machinery that now allows Nerada to produce Australian grown tea that competes with the best in the world. Let us tell you his story….
The early Nerada years: The 1980s challenges
Bill Benson likes to think of himself as just like many other Australian farmers. He studied agriculture in Western Australia, with a qualification as a wool classer. After some private contracting jobs in Esperance he was finally promoted to a management job, prompting further study with an Advanced Diploma of Business.
He was employed by Tristan Russell in the 1970s to help manage their family property in Esperance – his first full-time position. On first meeting, Tristan didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t say much of anything at the job interview. He was a man of few words, but Tristian had a good feeling about him. Bill recalls fondly that Tristan asked to see his hands. They were calloused, showing his ability to work hard, and Tristan decided there and then that he was right for the job.
After 10 years managing the Russell’s property, a new challenge emerged. Tristan had a vision that he needed someone he could trust to help execute, so Bill flew to Cairns with Tristan, who wanted to explore an ‘opportunity’. They drove to the Atherton Tablelands looking at a range of agricultural sites. They talked to local dairy farmers about their land, monitored rainfalls and looked at soil profiles. They identified an area called Glen Allyn, which, using Tristan’s experience in growing tea in other areas of the world, had great potential. The rainfall was spread evenly across the months and Tristan decided it would be perfect. But perfect for what, wondered Bill?
When it came to light what Tristan had in mind – to start the biggest tea plantation in Australia from scratch – Bill felt it was only right to tell him that he’d never seen a tea bush in his life! Bill’s experience was looking after cereal crops and livestock. “Good, get on with it!” was Tristan’s reply. He wanted someone who was not indoctrinated in the old, traditional, labour-intensive ways of how a tea plantation must be run. Tristan’s experience growing tea in other countries had taught him that things were often done a certain way because that’s the way it’d been done for many generations. He wanted Bill to be innovative and look at the process with fresh eyes that would allow them to produce tea using processes employed by other types of farming in Australia. Tristan knew that Nerada would never survive in Australia with the manual labour costs of other countries, it would cripple the business, so they needed to think differently. It was a huge leap of faith.
“I realise now that during that trip Tristan was sussing me out to see where my interests lied and what my long-term plans were,” Bill remembers. Three adjoining dairy farmers were offered well above the market price for their land and Nerada was born.
Bill was appointed the first plantation manager and he continued to manage the property in Western Australia, flying over to Glen Allyn every three months. Eventually, he brought his wife over to look around before making the move permanently. They landed in Cairns in 1984 to be greeted by a three-day electricity strike. Regardless, she liked what she saw and they decided it would a great place for their children to grow up and moved their young family to the Atherton Tablelands. They settled into a little house on the Nerada property.
Planting of the Nerada Tea Estate Begins
Bill’s agricultural background was put to good use when preparing the land for planting – it had to be sustainable. Bill decided the land should be contoured to create good drainage and going up and down hills was not achievable. In other countries tea is planted on the slopes of a mountain, at Nerada the incline had to be carved into the land to deliver viable yields.
He also had to establish a nursery to germinate tea seeds and establish seedlings before they could be planted in rows into the rich red soil. “I’d never seen a nursery and I had to build a huge one covered with shade cloth. The planting process lasted five years from start to finish with Tristan sending bi-clonal tea seeds of the highest quality to me,” he explains. Biodegradable pots were purchased that were half the size of an old milk bottle and over a million and a half of these were cultivated in the nursery. Seeds were delicately laid in the sand bed, covered with water and after a week they would germinate and be raked through and put in the nursery. A second method was also employed where he seed was planted directly into seed beds. Tristan visited on a regular basis and was always amazed at the progress – this was like nothing seen anywhere else in the world.
As planting successfully got underway, Bill turned his attention machinery for harvesting. A small, local tea plantation (now closed) was using a modified sugar harvester, another had a customised tractor with a conveyor belt. They were 6-8 feet (1.8 -2.4 metres) wide, but Bill wanted 16-18 feet (4.8-5.4 metres) – the width of four rows of tea bushes. “My background was growing cereals and those harvesters were much bigger, so it didn’t daunt me,” Bill says. He also wanted a cutting system like an old-fashioned push lawn mower, where the blades spin. He was inspired by the fine cut achieved by mowers used on bowling greens. He also realised the harvester would need excellent suspension to cope with dips in the ground and to ensure only the top leaves were picked. And so the quest to innovate and produce custom-made machinery using local talent began.
Bill also decided that air suction was a much more efficient way to get the tea leaves into the bins. The harvesters can hold up to 1 tonne of tea leaves and Bill decided a hydraulic system to tip the leaves into the bin at the end of the rows was the way to go.
All this machinery had to be custom made. They couldn’t buy as it didn’t exist anywhere else in the world! Bill hired a couple of local Cairns based boiler makers known for their can-do attitude and good work ethic. They were up for the task and the rest, as they say, is history.
All this equipment is still used today at Nerada. It is testament to Bill’s ability to innovate and he didn’t accept ‘it’s not possible’ as an answer. Of course, there was some trial and error. One of the prototype harvesters sunk into the ground as the double-width blades were too heavy! The story is often retold with a chuckle – it has become part of Nerada folklore.
A world-class Australian Tea Plantation
The fruit of Bill Benson’s labour is in your cup. He is now retired, but his dedication and hard work, along with that of the long-term management team, has resulted in a flourishing tea plantation on the Atherton Tablelands – the largest in Australia.
The environmental footprint was at the forefront of his vision, long before it became fashionable. Because of the way the tea was planted, today no pesticides are needed. Even back then pesticide use was minimal because it was so costly to apply and the impact it had on the environment. Sustainable practices were implemented on early and this allows the plantation to generate quality yields that are not seen anywhere else in the world. True Australian innovation!
Known for his strong work ethic and admired by those who he dealt with, there’s an enduring legacy that Bill leaves for future generations, an unsung hero of the tea industry in Australia. “By never worrying about saying ‘I can’t do this’ and asking someone with the appropriate skills to do it, we built a world-class tea industry in Queensland,” he explains. According to Bill, the key to his success is to have good people working with you.
Bill always had a huge respect for those that he employed and the skills they bought to Nerada. He made sure they were happy in their workplace and enjoyed good conditions – that was the way to get people to work at their best. He believes good communication with those you work with is key to solving any problems. It is no wonder Bill was so well-respected by his colleagues.
It is safe to say that without Bill, the Nerada tea plantation at Glen Allyn would not be what it is today. And we get to enjoy the fruits of his labour every time we sit down and enjoy a cup of Nerada tea.