Home Grown Tea: The Russell Family’s Australian Tea Story
The Russell family has been in the tea industry for decades. This family-owned operation always envisioned growing high-quality Australian tea in an environmentally sustainable way. However, it’s a story that’s not been without trials and tribulations. Here’s the story of the Russell family and how they’ve been involved in building and maintaining the Nerada brand for more than 30 years.
THE TEA INDUSTRY IN AUSTRALIA
The tea industry in Australia has had a chequered history. It first emerged in the late 1880s when the Cutten brothers identified potential farming land in Bingil Bay in Queensland and established Australia’s first commercial tea plantation. Sadly, the great cyclone of 1918 and its accompanying tidal waves wiped out the plantation, and the estate was abandoned for many years.
Change occurred in the early 1950s when Dr Allan Maruff migrated to Australia and settled in Innisfail, near Cairns. He saw many similarities between the area and his homeland of North India. As an enthusiastic botanist he committed to developing a tea industry in Australia, going in search of the Cutten brothers’ lost plantation.
Deep in the Queensland rainforest he discovered a thriving tea plantation, with some tea plants as high as 15 metres. He collected hundreds of seedlings and seeds and returned to Innisfail to start a tea nursery.
In 1958 Maruff purchased 320 acres of land in the Nerada Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Atherton Tablelands and planted the tea seedlings collected at Bingil Bay. The tea plantation grew, as did the challenges of finding suitable labour. Marruff approached trading house Burns Philp and they formed a joint venture called Nerada Tea Estates.
THE GROWTH OF THE TEA INDUSTRY IN NORTH QUEENSLAND
By 1969, it became clear that the tea industry needed to develop mechanical harvesting methods to ensure it remained viable. A tea processing factory was established in 1971 and the resulting tea was sold to packers and blenders in the southern Australian states. However, the quality was poor and very low prices put the new business under intense financial strain. The high production costs eventually led to the closure of the factory and plantation in 1972, with Burns Philp buying out Maruff’s holdings and selling the assets to Tea Estates of Australia (TEA).
The new group of Innisfail investors, led by local Holden dealer Rod Taylor, formed Tea Estates of Australia and decided to move away from selling bulk wholesale tea and develop a retail brand. In 1974 the Nerada Tea brand was launched into the Queensland Market through Cut Price Stores and by 1982 it was available in mainland states.
This fledgling industry was still fragile, and needed support of a number of growers and investors to survive.
THE RUSSELL FAMILY GETS INVOLVED
The Russell family have been involved in tea since 1927, having successfully established the Malaysian tea industry, now known as BOH Tea.
Tristan Russell, son of Kathleen and John Archibald Russell, worked in the business established by his father, which was the oldest and largest tea producer in South-East Asia. Tristan travelled to Australia and fell in love with Australian-born Joan Broadfoot. They were married in Sydney in 1960 and had two children, John and Caroline. The young family were originally looking to purchase a sheep farm near Esperance in Western Australia, but were mesmerized by the the pristine landscape of Far North Queensland, seeing the potential of the climate as suitable for growing quality tea.
With the encouragement of Rod Taylor and the co-owners of Tea Estates of Australia Ltd in Innisfail, Tristan started Glen Allyn Tea Estate near Malanda in 1984. Bill Benson, who had managed the family’s sheep and arable farm in Western Australia relocated to the Atherton Tableland, and was instrumental in getting the Glen Allyn plantation up and running. The new plantation required lots of innovation, with a focus on finding new semi-automated ways of planting to mechanize a process that was done by hand in other tea-producing nations.
The initial plan was to establish a small tea processing factory at Glen Allyn. At roughly the same time James Finlay & Co of Scotland started Tarakwet and Hugh Muir started his plantations nearby. This represented the single biggest expansion of tea growing in Australia, an opportunity to start to build a viable tea industry in North Queensland.
Tristan’s son, John Russell, who had trained in the family tea business, along with his Tasmanian wife Robyn, joined the business on the Atherton Tablelands in 1989 and commenced construction of a new tea factory.
TROUBLED TIMES – 1990s
In 1990 the Russell family and Finlays invested much needed capital into Tea Estates of Australia, and John Russell was appointed CEO. The innovative $6 million tea processing factory, the first of its kind in the world, was opened by Queensland premier Wayne Goss in 1991.
Shortly after, they opened a new packing factory in Brisbane, allowing the packing operation to to be re-located closer to its major customers which significantly reduced freight costs. A small number of employees moved from Innisfail to Brisbane, with enough knowledge and experience between them to get the new factory operational and working efficiently. This team included the current Head of Maintenance John Melvin, present Managing Director Andrew Weavers and Andrew Benakic.
The shareholder agreement in Tea Estates of Australia by Finlays and Russells broke down in 1995, along with the significant investment necessary to support the Nerada Brand. The Russells withdrew from Tea Estates of Australia purchasing the Nerada Brand and Brisbane packing factory into a new company called Nerada Tea Pty Ltd. The Russells made an agreement with Tea Estates of Australia to process their tea leaf from Glen Allyn Estate. Within a few years the Finlays and Tea Estates of Australia had ceased operations and Nerada Tea Pty Ltd purchased the tableland processing factory and Tarakwet Tea Estate. Had the Russell family not stepped in at this time, this most certainly would have been the end of the tea industry in Queensland.
Nerada are fortunate to be able to now share knowledge and expertise with BOH tea estates, both unique vertically integrated operations with a passion for producing exceptional tea.
MODERN DAY NERADA TEA
Since the time of the Russell family involvement in 1990 the Nerada brand has continued to grow, and we remain incredibly proud that we’ve been able to maintain production of Australia’s freshest black tea. Nerada Tea now has 1,100 acres of planted tea, yielding 6.6 million kilos of fresh tea leaves and producing 1.5 million kilos of tea a year, making it Australia’s largest tea producer.
The Nerada brand currently has 9% of the domestic market. The range of products has grown from 5 to 50 in the past 15 years – and now includes not only black tea, but green teas and herbal infusions.
Tristan Russell still takes an active interest in the business, especially the Atherton Tablelands plantations, and John Russell maintains an advisory role on the Nerada board. The Nerada business is managed out of Queensland with many long-term employees. Andrew Weavers continues in the role of Managing Director, which he has held for 20 years, and Tony Poyner, who started with Finlays, has managed the Atherton Tablelands tea plantations for over 27 years.
We’re proud that we support many local businesses and products. All profits made in Australia have been invested back into Nerada to ensure its growth. We have approximately 50 employees in Brisbane and 30 employees in North Queensland working at our Visitors Centre and Nerada Tea plantation. The future is bright, and we’re proud of the fact that we continue to produce Australia’s freshest black teas.