Recruiting green tea farmers on the Central Coast

Bright future: John Robb and Kunitaro farm manager Akio Onozawa at the green tea farm at Mangrove Mountain.

Bright future: John Robb and Kunitaro farm manager Akio Onozawa at the green tea farm at Mangrove Mountain.

As you wend your way through the Central Coast hinterland suburb of Mangrove Mountain, you come across an unexpected site: 10 hectares of thriving green tea plants.

Tea plantations are not so common in Australia. In fact, our great southern land produces less than 1 per cent of the tea consumed worldwide. This is not because our climate isn’t suited to tea growing, quite the opposite. It is simply an industry that many farmers are yet to tap into – and that’s something that Australian Green Tea Co-op founder John Robb is looking to change.

“In the future I think the tea industry in Mangrove Mountain could look a bit like the wine industry in the Hunter Valley,” he says. ““People could go on a tea tour rather than a wine tour, then have a tasting and cellar door experience”.

Mangrove Mountain saw its first tea leaves planted back in 2004 when Japanese company Kunitaro chose Australia as an alternative place to grow their tea. They pinpointed the eastern seaboard of NSW, particularly the inland Central Coast, as the ideal climate for growing tea plants.

Blue sky opportunity: Australian Green Tea Co-operative boss John Robb at Kunitaro's Central Coast tea farm.

Blue sky opportunity: Australian Green Tea Co-operative boss John Robb at Kunitaro's Central Coast tea farm.

“I think there are issues with Japan running out of arable land and Australia has a clean green image as far as food and beverages go,” Robb says. “The company set up here because it has got good proximity to Sydney and it’s a good environment with clean air and water.”

Australia also has what Robb refers to as the “southern hemisphere advantage”. “In Asia their first tea leaves of the year aren’t picked until May whereas we start picking in September,” he explains.

The result means Mangrove Mountain can provide fresh green tea to Japanese drinkers in their northern hemisphere winter.

“The quality of tea produced in the Mangrove Mountain plateau is equal to, if not better than that produced in Japan,” Robb says. 

Robb came on board with the Kunitaro project while he was managing the local Paradise Plants Nursery, one of the largest camellia nurseries in NSW. Tea plants are part of the camellia family, which made Robb the right man for the project.

From little things: Kunitaro harvest and process their own tea on site at Mangrove Mountain before shipping around 20 tonnes of tea a year back to their parent company in Japan.

From little things: Kunitaro harvest and process their own tea on site at Mangrove Mountain before shipping around 20 tonnes of tea a year back to their parent company in Japan.

The farm has gone from strength to strength, resulting in the formation of The Green Tea Co-op which snagged a $100,000 federal grant last year in the Farming Together Program.

“The purpose of the grant is several-fold,” Robb says. “It is to get more growers for Kunitaro, but it’s also inviting other players into this new industry. In the future we can grow tea for China, the USA, Europe and Australia.”

”The grant is really to set up the framework for recruitment,” Robb says. “If we got one farmer who could do something as big as this farm, that doubles the industry here and that is significant.”

The quality of tea produced in the Mangrove Mountain plateau is equal to, if not better than that produced in Japan.

Australian Green Tea Co-op founder John Robb

The Mangrove Mountain farm is privately owned by Kunitaro Australia. They harvest and process their own tea on site before shipping around 20 tonnes of tea a year back to their parent company in Japan.

“This is a new industry in Australia right now and farmers are just a little bit unsure about this crop, so part of the formation of the co-op is to try and educate potential farmers.”

The recruitment for farmers is now on with a series of information nights to be held on the Central Coast. Anyone interested is encouraged to visit austea.coop.

“This is an opportunity for farmers to diversify,” he says.

John believes the potential in this untapped and ever growing market is “huge”.

In the future we want other farmers to be growing the tea and that means more processing, more jobs and more opportunity to expand the market.

Australia is important for import replacement because not much of the tea that is made here, actually stays here.