Today we left Cairns and journeyed up the Great Dividing Range to the Atherton Tablelands. This will be the first of our three days here in Yungaburra. The town was established in 1890, and today it is a popular place to vacation. The area is a haven for wildlife; you may see platypus, tree kangaroos, wallabies and a large variety of birds. The weather here is usually mild in the month of May with an average high of 24.9°C (77ºF) and an average low of 16.2°C (61ºF) because is situated 720 metres (2400 feet) above sea level. It’s cooler than the coastal area during summer and in winter.
Before non-indigenous settlement, the area was populated with approximately 16 different tribal groups of Aboriginal people. As the settlements increased, tribes were probably reduced to less than 20% of their pre-contact numbers from European diseases and conflicts with settlers. Yungaburra village has existed largely unchanged since 1910. Many of the historic buildings in the heart of the village remain in their original state. Tourism became the town’s biggest industry in 1926 when the Cairns–Yungaburra Range Road was opened.
To start the day, Paul gave us a tour as we drove and told us all about the Highland Tropical Mesophyll Complex Rainforest, which basically means that it is a very tropical large leaf rainforest which lets in less than 5% of sunlight—the highest complexity in the world. Once we arrived at the Nerada tea plantation we were taken outside to see a tree kangaroo. We were very lucky to see this unique animal!
We next went inside to sample some of the factory fresh tea that is produced at the plantation while our tour guides, Martine and Bew Chee, answered all of our questions about the operations at the plantation. We learned that there are 346 acres of tea here at Australia’s largest tea plantation, and that they harvest 80 tons of raw tea plants each day. This plantation produces about 750 million cups of tea every year. The tea plants are mechanically harvested, stored in specially designed cooling containers, refined, oxidized, dried and then packed in both bagged and loose leaf versions. We were given a tour of the factory and concluded the visit with most of us making purchases of various varieties of tea!
The next place we visited was Mt. Uncle distillery where we ate a delicious lunch and listened to Butch and Shirley give a presentation on their banana farming practices on their 800 acre plantation. There are a few disease problems that face the Ladyfinger banana crops, but not many, and they sometimes need to use fungicides or pesticides to prevent problems. We saw the technology they used to pack the bananas and avocados, and heard about a new invention by one of Butch’s nephews called a “Blankie” which effectively cushions the fruit and absorbs excess moisture and sap while it is in transport.
We then made our way to the last stop of the day: Gallo Dairyland, a family owned and operated business on 1000 acres of rich red volcanic soil. We spoke with part-owner Frank Gallo who told us all about how the cows are raised on 50% grazing diets, and how the farm is considering downsizing its dairy operations in favor of growing sugarcane. This is an unfortunate consequence of some dairy deregulation laws which make it more profitable for Gallo to grow the sugarcane only. We also got to taste some of the delicious cheese and chocolate produced there, and many of us made purchases there as well! We then came back to Paul’s place, the On the Wallaby backpacker accommodations, and ate an awesome dinner, followed by a night canoeing trip for part of the group.
One thing I noticed today was an issue with biodiversity. At Gallo, we learned that they used to have 600 dairy cows, but were forced to downsize to 300, and are looking at cutting that number down again. They would switch to almost entirely sugarcane, which is one of the most common crops in the region. The farm was previously all cows, which created a problem when dairy laws and the industry changed. We also saw that the banana plantation used to grow avocados and macadamia nuts, and now they grow 100% bananas. Butch told us about a root disease that can attack banana plants and get in the soil, resulting in an inability to ever grow bananas in that location again. This could cause a major economic and environmental problem for the plantation if all 800 acres of bananas were to be struck with the disease.
I also noticed that both the tea and bananas were grown in areas that were very appropriate for those types of crops. It was an interesting contrast to what we learned at Charles Sturt University about how wheat and sheep grazing practices do not really work well with that area of Australian land. Both plantations had minimal pest problems and needed small amounts of irrigation, if any. Even the dairy farm told us they don’t spray for anything at all on their sugarcane crop. The tablelands get 2-4 meters of rain every year, and this helps farmers economically grow crops that don’t need much help (such as pesticides or irrigation) that would damage the environment. All the places we visited today were also family owned. Keeping businesses in the family is sustainable in that it generally keeps standards high. People want to take pride in what they do and the products they produce, and it helps that they were smaller operations that had more control over all aspects of the business.
One final sustainable observation I made at the visits today was that both the tea and banana plantations were finding ways to re-use their waste products. At Nerada, they had waste fibers that historically probably would’ve been thrown away, but they have found an alternative use for them by selling them overseas to be made into iced tea. At Mt. Uncle, they are doing research on a flour made from dried banana pulp. This would give a possible alternate use for the fruit with blemishes on it that previously would have just become waste when the market did not accept it. Methods like these that make use of what would have become waste make sense both economically and environmentally, making them more sustainable.
Overall, I think we had an amazing day here in Yungaburra, and we learned a lot about sustainability on all of our different visits!
“Atherton Tablelands”. Map. 8 May 2013. http://www.gumtreeongillies.com.au/atherton
“Barramundi Fish Farm”. Web. 8 May 2013. http://www.startupbizhub.com/barramundi-fish-farm.htm
“Discover and Experience Australia’s Own Tea” Brochure. 30 May 2013.
Gallo, Frank. Presentation. Gallo Dairyland. 30 May 2013. http://www.gallodairyland.com.au/about.htm
“The Gallo Cheese Family” Brochure. Gallo Dairyland. 30 May 2013.
Mt. Uncle Distillery. Presentation. 30 May 2013. http://www.mtuncle.com/
Nerada Tea Plantation. Presentation. 30 May 2013. http://www.neradatea.com.au/
“Rainforests”. Wet Tropics Management Authority. Web. 28 June 2013. http://www.wettropics.gov.au/rainforest
Wolfe, Ted. Presentation. Charles Sturt University. 23 May 2013. http://www.csu.edu.au/research/grahamcentre/news/seminarseries/2012/2012-06-Wolfe.htm
“Yungaburra Weather”. Web. 8 May 2013. http://www.weatherzone.com.au/qld/nth-cst-and-tableland/yungaburra