Winter Frosts at the Nerada Tea Plantation: Everything You Need to Know

Dealing with the forces of nature is just one of the challenges of agriculture and being a single origin tea estate.

While cold weather may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of tropical Far North Queensland, unfortunately our Malanda tea plantation is not immune from the icy winter frosts that can hit every year. Yes, iced tea, but not in the way you’d normally think about it.

As Queensland shivers through a colder than average winter, the last few weeks have been a stark reminder about the obstacles we need to overcome to bring you Australia’s freshest tea. In early June 2018, we experienced a frost that destroyed 50 per cent of the entire tea estate (around 50 tonnes of tea), only to be hit again two weeks later where we lost even more of our crop. It’s the biggest loss the farm has experienced in about 10 years.

Our Plantation Director, Tony Poyner, has been responsible for the Nerada plantation for over 10 years, and been in the tea industry for almost 30 years, so he’s a seasoned veteran at working out how to best respond. In this short blog he explains what causes these winter frosts and why we choose not to use chemicals to limit or prevent this damage.

It’s all about letting Mother Nature repair the damage naturally; a small loss now gives a healthy and naturally resilient tea estate long into the future.

What is a frost and how is it caused?

Nerada can experience a frost anywhere from late May through to mid-September each year. We’re located 40 kilometres from the coast so most of our weather comes across from the ocean. Normally this moisture-laden air hits Mount Bartle Frere, the highest mountain in Queensland, and because we are located directly behind the mountain, we are normally fairly safe.

However, sometimes a particular weather pattern can form down south over Tasmania or Victoria – a high-low combination, where the low is spinning clockwise and the high is spinning anti-clockwise – and it forces dry, cold arctic air directly over Australia and results in a winter frost.

We normally get one or two days’ notice that the cold snap is coming, so we’ve become pretty good weather forecasters over the years and study the synoptic charts to work out whether we’ll miss a frost or it’s going to be severe. But with a plantation of over 1,100 acres, it’s something we can do little to avoid. 

How exactly does it damage the tea plants?

When the icy cold air hits, a frost settles on top of the tea bush and attacks the fleshy new buds and leaves. The leaves and buds then freeze and rupture. When this happens, we either have to go in with the harvester to trim off the destroyed leaves and discard them or wait for them to naturally decay and fall off. Time will tell how much damage has been done, and it is often the case that we have to harvest and discard the next crop as well.

We can experience multiple frosts every winter, so we are always tossing up with spending the money to go in with the harvester and clean up the damage, only to be hit with another frost in a week’s time, or to wait and see what happens naturally.

We also have to time our annual pruning of the estate to ensure we get the maximum benefit from spring and summer rainfall, without losing the new growth that might be affected by a late frost.

How damaging can the frost be?

One of the worst frosts I’ve seen here at Nerada was in August 2007. The frost covered the entire estate. The tea had started to come back from prune (tea is not totally dormant in winter, it just grows much slower), but the frost was so severe that it burnt the bush itself six inches down to the hedge.

The damage was so bad that it took around three months for the crop to grow back.

The fact is that we usually experience more than one frost each year, so just as these areas start to regenerate, whatever new growth is there is prone to be frost affected again. Over a three-month cycle, very often that affected area is taken out of the rotation completely.

Can the frost damage be prevented?

There are certain products that can be sprayed over crops to help protect it from frost damage by forming a semi-permeable, biodegradable film over the plants. However, here at Nerada we are pesticide-free and prefer the clean, green approach so we won’t use it.

There are also frost fans that move the air and try to eliminate the frost, and they are used with some success in smaller estates, but the estate here is too large for these to have an effect.

So, there is not a lot we can do, other than hold our breath, let Mother Nature run her course and hope for the best.

Is there any long-term impact on tea quality?

No. There will always will be seasonal fluctuations in black tea production and that is both the downside and upside of being a single origin estate. We can have subtle nuances in our flavour profile throughout the year, but we iron out those differences via the production process – by changing the moisture content, temperature and time of manufacturing.

All of these things are tailored and tweaked to ensure we get a very consistent profile when it comes to taste.

We taste the tea, which has been freshly processed daily to ensure consistency, and then a sample is also tasted by our tea-tasters in our Brisbane factory to ensure we are happy with the quality and flavour profile. Anything which does not meet our strict quality standards does not end up in Nerada Tea. It’s what allows us to bring you Australia’s freshest tea.