Nerada – a legacy of Australian innovation

The continued success of Nerada is thanks mainly to three basic ingredients – Australia’s pioneering, ‘can do’ spirit, ingenuity and initiative.

When Nerada Tea’s owner, Tristan Russell, chose Bill Benson, the long-time manager of his property in Esperance, WA, to manage what he planned to be the largest tea plantation in Australia in the Atherton Tablelands, it certainly wasn’t for Bill’s experience in that area; rather, it was for the opportunity to approach tea growing and production from a completely new angle. Tristan was looking for a kindred pioneering spirit to embrace the potential of formulating new methods of cultivating and harvesting tea that would work best in the Australian environment.

Australia’s growth and achievements since white settlement has had much to do with a certain ‘roll up your sleeves’ attitude that has forged our forebears’ legacy. Innovation has always been a driving force for change and progress, and nowhere more so than on the land, where frequently harsh conditions and the ‘tyranny of distance’ have meant that people have had to use whatever they had at their disposal to succeed – whether running sheep or cattle… or growing tea.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by Bill’s achievements in his development of Nerada’s ground-breaking growing methods and purpose-built machinery to harvest and process our tea crops. This pioneering nature continues today, with Tony Poyner and the current team evolving practices to ensure that we compete with the worlds finest tea producers.

Taking the first steps

When Tristan Russell set upon developing his plantation in the mid-1980s, the first consideration was how it would compete on the world stage in terms of the Australian labour market. Production costs needed to be curbed if Nerada was to hold its own with other tea-producing countries who used intensive labour practices. Tristan and Bill knew they had to think and work smart, innovatively and efficiently, which meant designing the specific machinery for the task, and to base it on successful practices and principles already in place in other sectors of the farming industry.

Once Bill had prepared the new property to his specifications – contouring its slopes to enhance drainage and create a sustainable, low-impact yet productive growing and harvesting environment, he went on to trial new methods of propagation and sowing, a process that took some five years to develop. As Tristan has admitted – throughout his travels studying tea production around the world, he’d seen nothing like these methods before, and knew that Nerada’s future was already in good hands. But for Bill, this was just the start…

Thinking big and making do

With his innovative cultivation techniques well in hand, Bill turned his mind to the practicalities of harvesting Nerada’s tea crop. At other small-scale tea plantations in the area (since closed), he witnessed one using a modified sugar-cane harvester and another who had customised a tractor with a conveyor belt. While perfectly adequate for smaller farms, they were at least half the size of the machinery Bill required to harvest four rows of tea bushes at a time with a relatively small labour force. His experience in farming and harvesting the vast cereal crops of Western Australia meant he was undaunted by the scale of harvester he needed. Plus, he had a very specific cutting mechanism in mind – much like the spinning blades of lawnmowers used on bowling greens. Other requirements also came into play, including suspension that was good enough to enable the harvester to navigate the contours of the terrain, as well as limiting the cutting to just the top leaves by keeping the blades parallel to the ground at all times.

As there was no machinery on the market anywhere in the world that met his criteria, Bill did what every other pioneering farmer has done before him – he set about custom-making one to his own specifications with what was available right there, with help from local tradespeople. So, aided and abetted by two boilermakers from Cairns, among others, and many prototypes later, Nerada’s first large-scale tea harvester was developed, one that could not only pick the tea leaves, but which included a hydraulic system to tip its load into bins at the end of the rows before carting them to the factory for processing.

Innovating for the long-term

Today, Nerada is still using the same methods and machinery to grow and harvest its tea crops, while continuing to tweak and refine the design of the harvester first pioneered by Bill Benson. While each new generation of management is always keen to ‘sweep clean’, for current manager Tony Poyner, when something works so well, the smart thing to do is look at how it may be improved; not changed. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend how long something takes to go from a concept to the world-class machines now operating on the estate. So, while innovation is integral to the Australian tea industry, at Nerada, we approach it as just a matter of “having another go – we’ll get it to work tomorrow”. To that end, we’ve been replacing the engines in our machinery with more fuel-efficient models, as well as upgrading the suspension design and modifying our harvester frames to reduce stress-damage – all as part of our scheduled servicing program.

It’s something that Nerada has always prided itself on – an ability to innovate and adapt to the needs of our unique Australian environment in order to deliver our customers the finest quality and freshest tea. And if our future looks rosy, it’s all thanks to the pioneering initiatives of the past.