Nerada’s Innisfail Connection
Innisfail will always be the spiritual home of Nerada Tea, marking the beginnings of the tea industry in Australia as we now know it today. For local Innisfail doctor and botanist Dr Allan Maruff, the region was the perfect location to plant his precious tea seedlings back in the 1950s. The red volcanic soils, reasonable drainage, undulating land and tropical conditions formed the perfect ecosystem to grow tea, and reminded him of the tea hills in his homeland of India. This is a tale of vision, perseverance, innovation and the cultivation of an industry that is very much still centred around world-class tea production in Far North Queensland.
The early days of Nerada Tea
In 1958, Dr Allan Maruff purchased 320 acres on Nerada Road at Nerada, located 35km from Innisfail. The plot was located next to a sugar cane farm, on the banks of the Johnstone River. Maruff, a doctor and botanist, had always been a visionary, had gone in search of a lost tea plantation in Bingal Bay, just south of Innisfail, that was planted by the Cutten Brothers in 1884. In fact, after successfully finding the lost plantation in the dense rainforest, it was seedlings and seeds collected from this historic tea plantation that were the source of Maruff’s new plantation at Nerada along with some seeds from the Bureau of Tropical Agriculture, South Johnstone.
It was Maruff’s wife Carro who pointed him in the direction of tea in the first place. On a Sunday drive, Carro remarked that the foothills of Mt Bartle Frere reminded her of the north-east Indian state of Assam, where as a child she had holidayed with her family, and it was not long before the renowned doctor was asking Eric Shaw at the Blood Bank in Brisbane to save the used vials from his lab so that he could use them as planter bags for his tiny seedlings.
And so, with the planting of tea, a new vision emerged for Innisfail and surrounds. With its ideal altitude, humid climate, heavy rainfall and rich red soil, it was the perfect location for Dr Maruff’s nascent tea plantation that would become Nerada Tea’s centre of gravity in Australia.
Starting a tea plantation in Innisfail
It took much innovation and a little bit of luck to start a tea plantation in Far North Queensland.
International tea brands such as Bushells and Billy Tea already had a foothold in the market, but they sourced their tea from overseas as a local tea growing industry did not yet exist. It took more than four years for Maruff’s crop to start producing, with much sugar cane pulled out and the land planted over to tea. The plantation’s location was ideal. There was good access by a gravel road to Pullom Road and Nerada Roads, with boundless water bordered on its northern side by the North Johnstone River.
While he prepared the land for planting, Maruff cultivated the seedlings in his nursery at the back of his Innisfail surgery on Rankin Street. In 1959, the doctor was ready to move his seedlings from Rankin Street to a nursery at Nerada. A small cottage was built on the farm to act as a gatehouse, and Maruff and his son Peter, who had taken 6 months out of his medical studies to help, learned how to drive tractors, plant and work the land.
Even with his son helping, Maruff realised that he’d need more support to grow his venture and with the logistics of planting seedlings. Nerada had a tiny population, so he approached the local primary school for assistance. With agreement, the local students were paid to help out with the planting of the seedlings on weekends. A lot of Innisfail locals still recall earning pocket money in the early days by working on the Nerada tea site, planting Maruff’s precious seedlings.
In no time, the seedlings had transformed into 32 hectares of thriving tea bushes. Seed from Nerada was even supplied to assist in establishing a tea plantation in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea that would later play a vital role in supplying planting material to the many plantations being established in the Western Highlands around Mount Hagen and Banz. These areas make up a substantial part of PNG’s tea industry today.
Back in Australia, the Nerada plantation was thriving, except for one hitch. Dr Maruff, a botanist with a skill for growing plants, has no efficient means of harvesting the tea and the labour-intensive method of hand-harvesting practiced in all major tea-producing countries could not be sustained in Australia with its high cost of labour. Nerada was a location where the tea fields could thrive without the need for chemicals or pesticides, and Maruff found himself with a dense, rich crop. To come up with a solution, he teamed up with local engineers to develop a new method of mechanical harvesting.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, it was a move that would become crucial to the survival of the Australian tea industry in years to come. Less than a decade on, in the 1960s, Dr Maruff harvested his first crop using an innovative five-tonne mechanical tea harvester, custom-made in Queensland. To this day, it has been the pioneering of machinery that exists in few other places in the world which means that we can continue to compete against other countries with cheaper labour.
“In Innisfail and Tully, tea was the talking point of the sixties,” writes historian R.J Taylor in his book The Lost Plantation: The history of the Australian Tea Industry. “In these relatively safe, dependable economic years, talk was of new industries, new initiatives, new horizons.”
In 1970, after the success of his first harvest, Maruff approached trading company Burns Philp to invest in his business. They were a shipping company, but at the time were looking to expand their corporate interests. They formed Nerada Tea Estates Pty Ltd and commenced building the first-ever tea processing factory in Australia.
The factory was in no way automated and leaf was tossed by hand. When it came out of the withering troughs into the conveyer belts it was a manual process with locals employed to run the factory. Five large mechanical harvesters (wasn’t aware there 5 harvesters) harvested the tea on a daily basis with a labour content of 1.4 persons per hectare compared with up to 5.0 persons per hectare in other parts of the world.
By 1971, tea was being produced from the factory and being sold to packers and blenders in the southern States.
Many saw the opportunity for tea as a new agricultural commodity in the region, with many farmers questioning whether to swap sugar cane and banana plantations over to produce tea. In 1969, Tea Estates of Australia commenced tea planting on a property adjacent to the Maruff plantation. It was owned by a consortium of local businessmen from 10 of the most influential families in the area. The group included Rod Taylor, who owned the local Holden Car Dealership, Dr Bill Markwell (sugar and cattle farmer), Joe Raymond (engineer and timber contractor), Vince Vandeleur (solicitor), Eddie Web (sugar farmer), Albert and Santo Lagana (chemist and sugar growers), Noel Rees (butcher), Joe Giarola (dentist) and Jim Nucifora (sugar farmer).
The group were entrepreneurs and not farmers. In 1971 they employed a manager, Bill Boylan, who was very much a jack of all trades who could make machinery out of anything. He was paramount to the success of the plantation and worked for the group for 12 years. With Bill Boylan at the helm, “the Nerada embryo project went on to become a large estate producing a million pounds of tea annually,” writes R.J Taylor. “In 1971 he planted a further 50 acres of tea making 80 acres in all.”
Why the name Nerada?
Dr Maruff’s original tea plantation was located in Nerada, on Nerada Road. It was located just off the Palmerston Highway, along the Johnstone River in the Cassowary Coast Region of Far North Queensland. The word Nerada is believed to be an Aboriginal word from the Mamoo language meaning “grass country”.
1970s: Troubled Times
The early 70s was tough. Cyclone Winifred crossed the coast on 1 February 1986 with a radar eye diameter of 41 km just south of Innisfail which wiped out much of the local tea plantations in the region and made quality and the quantity of tea available quite difficult to supply. Prices attained were low, averaging only 17 cents per pound. The pressure was on with cost overruns on the factory construction and Burns Philip Directors found themselves in a situation where mounting bank overdrafts were putting serious pressure on operations.
Dr Maruff reportedly tried to influence the Queensland Government into giving him the State Government Tea Contract on the grounds of being the only state producer. The Government, bound by regulation though was unable to do so, advising that only when the contract came up for tender in 1972 would Nerada enjoy the local preference clause. Maruff was not impressed, believing that the then Premier, Hon Joh Bjelke Petersen, could have circumnavigated the regulation somehow.
Due to the ongoing financial strains caused by the inability to achieve higher prices for the tea, the plantation and the factory were eventually closed on 30 June 1972. Burns Philip bought out Maruff’s holdings in the company. In 1973, Nerada Tea Estates ceased operations, and after a year of neglect, their assets were offered to TEA, including the overgrown plantation – which neighboured TEA’s own – the tea factory, machinery shed and gate cottage. Both properties were in effect joined together, physically separated only by the ravine of Rankin Creek running down the boundary of the two properties.
“Dr Maruff remained interested in tea, but died 6 years later at the age of 67,” writes R.J Taylor. His original plantation became known as the Western Plantation on the TEA property.
Tea Estates of Australia – a new beginning
With a new business to grow, Tea Estates of Australia made the important decision to move away from the bulk wholesaling of tea to developing a market in a value-added form under a retail brand. In 1974, the old Danesi Spaghetti Factory on Edith Street was bought and turned into a tea-packing factory using a Purepak milk carton machine purchased from Malanda Milk. A Brisbane distributor was appointed and the Nerada Tea brand was launched in the Queensland market through Cut Price Stores. They were the exclusive stockists for more than 12 months until increasing production necessitated a wider market.
Rod Taylor was an astute businessman and handled marketing using ideas from his many years marketing in the motor industry. He designed the packets and while their milk carton shape was initially a sales deterrent, once people tried them, they found them convenient with a long shelf life. Under Taylor, the Nerada brand was featured on QANTAS flights, and grew in supermarket presence across Australia. Local Engineering company Hourston Engineering designed a new harvestor based on the old Toft Machine, but this time a little lighter and improved.
“These were years of quiet consolidation while the partnership watched the maturing hedges produce more tea each year. No new areas were planted to tea, and attempts were made to improve the quality of tea manufactured in the Nerada factory,” writes R.J Taylor. “New harvesters Teabird 1 and Teabird 2 were manufactured by Hourstons in 1976 and 1977 and tourism to the plantations grew apace. At the pack-ing factory a teabag machine from England was installed. Marketing in-creased to cover most stores in Queensland, and the State Government contract for tea was secured for the first time in 1976.”
By 1977 production had increased and prices started to stabilise. A new area was planted and an invitation Field Day was held with the Hon Joh Bjelke Peterson officially opening the expansions to the Factory in October 1977.
A tea house, information house and souvenir shop were built on the property in Innisfail to attract tourists and it looked like the industry would thrive.
Nerada had survived, but it was still very much an industry in its infancy and the touch of Mother Nature can often be unkind. Drought hit at the end of 1979 with no rain falling for 56 days – unparalleled in what is typically the wettest part of Australia. By the end of November, the tea plantation was in dire straits and on December 4, 1979, production halted entirely.
As Christmas approached the company’s worst fears were realised and despite massive rainfalls, the tea bushes took six months to recover and quantities were heavily impacted. The irony of this dry spell is that it took place in a record-setting year for huge rainfall.
As production increased, further investments were made in factory expansions, harvesting machinery and tea packing equipment. A new harvestor was built, with an air-conditioned cab, but the drought had taken its toll on the plants and limited its efficiencies. Despite waves of adversity, by 1982 Nerada Tea was available in all mainland states.
“Ninety-eight years after Herbert Cutten and his brothers planted tea at Bingil Bay, the tea industry had finally arrived. Tea was a lost industry no more. Nerada tea had become ‘The Nation’s Cuppa’,” writes R.J. Taylor.
What happened to the original Tea plantation?
Nerada Tea moved production to the Glen Allyn Tea Estate near Malanda in Queensland in 1984. This period saw the entry of fourth-generation farmers the Russell family to the Nerada story. Having seen his family produce tea while growing up in Britain and Malaysia, Tristan Russell, son of Kathleen and John Archibald Russell, came to Australia in the 1950s in search of diversifying the family portfolio. Having fallen in love with Australian-born Joan Broadfoot, Tristan and Joan married in Sydney in 1960 and had two children, John and Caroline. The young couple were mesmerised by the Queensland terroir, recognising that the climate was perfect for growing tea. They recruited WA farmer Bill Benson to manage their new property in Glen Allyn with the hope of starting the biggest tea plantation in Australia and building a world-class tea facility locally. The family has been involved in growing tea and supporting the Nerada brand in Australia ever since.
The Malanda site had potential for expansion – it was an ideal place to build a more robust tea factory, plus it was located closer to transport routes which meant that the tea could be easily transported to the packing facilities in Acacia Ridge in Brisbane. This is the beginning of a new chapter that we will detail in another piece to come.
After Nerada Tea’s Innisfail facility closed in 1991, the Innisfail staff were given the opportunity to relocate to Brisbane and Nerada plantation factory staff were offered relocation to Malanda, which some members of the team choose to do so. Many of these long-term employees still work for Nerada to this day. Those who remained in Innisfail found their own source of luck though. They formed a syndicate and purchased a gold lotto ticket, and as luck may have it, those in the syndicate were fortunate enough to win the $1 million prize, with members taking home about $80,000 each. What a foray into early retirement!
After surviving many of the challenges of the 80s, the original site of the Nerada Tea plantation was sold to banana farmers, who also faced their own share of problems with a number of cyclones coming through. The original tea room closed had already closed to the public prior to the processing facilities ceased operations, and this facility then became their offices.
Nerada’s roots are still firmly planted in Innisfail and we continue to sponsor the Innisfail Open Tennis Cup each year. Tea is still grown in Innisfail by Nucifora Tea – one of the key local growers, who continue to support the local product.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of how Nerada evolved in the 80s.
In the meantime, you might enjoy the following articles: