Commercial Bushtucker Production – a North Queensland perspective

By Peter and Ann Radke
Yuruga Nursery, Walkamin, North Qld

This paper was presented at the QDPI Choices Seminar,
Mareeba, August 1995.

1. Commercial production vs hobby farming.

Basically, there are two types of bushtucker:

  • The stuff you eat for survival when you’re desperate, or to supplement your diet, or for the fun of eating ‘off the land’ – much of this type, while it may be nutritious, is not particularly nice to eat (ie. edible but not palatable) and has no commercial value. This is the cottage industry or hobby-type approach and is not within the realms of this paper.
  • The bushtucker which has real flavour and can be used in gourmet dishes – this is a high quality product with commercial value. You can earn an income from this type.

This paper is about planting bushtucker with the specific aim of earning an income.

2. Farming vs wild harvesting.

Why plant a bushtucker farm? Why not simply harvest from the wild?

At present the bulk of commercial bushtucker requirements are met by harvesting from the wild.

However, the days of wild harvesting are numbered for several reasons:

  1. Demand is growing and eventually will outstrip wild supply.
  2. Wild harvesting is unreliable and erratic, totally dependent on the vagaries of the seasons and of the idiosyncrasies of the species being harvested. As the products grow in popularity, reliable supply is becoming very important.
  3. Governments are increasingly responding to pressures from the environmental movement to protect native forests.

Harvesting of fruits from the wild involves removing a considerable quantity of biomass, with subsequent effects right through the food chain. In consequence, a large proportion of the seeds on which continuing generations rely are also removed, with implications for the future genetic structure of the species and of the forest.

The Qld Nature Conservation Act 1992 restricts wild harvesting of plant parts for commercial reasons (this already affects the native cut flower industry and the collection of seed for the nursery industry), and as the demand for bushtucker grows the DEH will inevitably impose similar restrictions on the bushtucker industry.

Farming is better all round:

  • The controlled conditions of a well run orchard ensures reliable harvests and quality control (wild fruit may be riddled with insects pests, for instance, which can be controlled in an orchard).
  • Harvesting from orchards is easier and cheaper than harvesting in the wild.
  • Orchards can be planted with trees of superior genetic structure, resulting in a better quality product, better yields, and higher returns.
  • There are no government regulations over harvesting from private orchards!

Wild harvesting is a hunter-gathered type enterprise. The modern world has moved on. Farming bushtucker in a controlled environment to produce a consistent, reliable, quality product is the only way to go. This does not necessarily mean the production of an artificial product – ‘organic’ farming methods and biological pest control can be employed if it is considered important to retain that ‘natural’ connection.

3. The 3 tiers of the bushtucker industry.

There are three tiers in the bushtucker production chain, each of equal importance, and each dependent on each other. This requires total cooperation, communication, and feedback between each level.

The production chain:

  1. nursery: produces the plants
  2. farmer: establishes orchards and produces the fruit
  3. processor: processes, packages and markets the product to the consumer

There is no point the processor demanding a particular species in large quantities if it is impossible for the nursery to propagate it. There is no point the nurseryman producing a particular species if the climate is unsuitable for the farmer to grow it. There is no point the farmer producing large quantities of a particular fruit if it lacks broad consumer acceptance. And so on.

Co-operation between all three tiers is essential for the success of everyone involved.

4. Advisers.

Each level also relies on advice from outside sources – DPI, CSIRO, bushtucker growers form other areas, native plant enthusiasts, etc.

The intelligent and informed choice of adviser is critical. Scientists do not know everything about everything! – they merely have specialist areas within which they may be experts. Don’t be afraid to ask what the limits of expertise of a potential adviser are. Demand credentials. For instance, botanists don’t know everything about all plants. A botanist who specialises in naming plants is not the right person to ask about plant diseases. A soil scientist is not the right person to ask about controlling an insect attack.

Bushtucker farming is a new field. You will possibly find a lot of instant experts out there ready to tell you how to do it. Beware! Be very careful to choose the right person for each different type of advice you are seeking.

5. Yuruga’s role.

The role of Yuruga Nursery in the bushtucker industry is two-fold.

We are native plant nurserymen, so we are obviously well placed to produce the plants for the farmer.

We have ourselves grown a wide range of North Queensland bushtucker species on our own properties, and we know probably more than anyone about the specific requirements of these species in cultivation. Therefore we are also advisers, offering advice and assistance to farmers on selecting suitable species for their area, spacing in the orchard, fertilising, watering and wind protection.

6. Selecting the species to grow on your farm.

Many bushtucker plants (and especially the really popular ones in restaurants) are desert plants and/or plants form Southern Australia.

It doesn’t take too much IQ to figure out that desert plants are next to impossible to grow in the monsoon tropics, so don’t waste your time.

However, it is easier to fall into the trap of trying to grow Southern Australian plants in North Queensland, until you realise that our climate is the reverse of that down south – we have wet summers and dry winters, they have dry summers and wet winters. This plays havoc with the survival rates of southern species here in the north; and if they do survive, it plays havoc with their flowering and fruiting capacities. Even if you do manage to get them to grow, you can bet that bushtucker farmers down south will be producing the same crop much more easily and cheaply, so it won’t be worth your while anyway.

So, the message is quite simple: don’t waste your time trying to grow southern species here in the north.

OK, so you have to choose from northern Australian species. That’s not the end of the story, though.

Here in the north we have a huge range of microclimates within a very short travelling distance. Compare the temperature and rainfall of Millaa Millaa (cool, wet), Dimbulah (hot, dry) and Tully (hot, wet) and think of all the variations in between. Add in other factors such as solar radiation, evaporation, wind, cloud cover, soil type etc etc, and you can see that there is no one answer for bushtucker farmers in the north.

This is where you should seek our advice to select the right species for your particular block of land. But be prepared for the grand inquisition regarding location, aspect, etc, etc before we come up with a list of species for you.

7. Purchasing your plants.

A bit of pertinent advice which could save you a lot of money later on: buy your plants from an accredited nursery.

Accredited nurseries display this symbol, so they are easy to identify.

The nursery accreditation scheme is a joint DPI – nursery industry scheme set up for your protection, so use it! It’s a bit like builder’s registration – it guarantees that the company providing a service meets at least a minimum set of standards. In the case of builders, it assures you that your house won’t fall down.

In the case of nurseries, it assures you that, as far as is possible, the plants you purchase do not carry diseases which could wipe out your orchard some time in the future – diseases such as the die-back disease Phytophthora which avocado growers know all about. Avocado nurseries have a similar accreditation scheme for the protection of orchardists, and a serious avocado grower would be mad to buy plants from anyone but an accredited grower, so take a leaf out of their book.

Diseases such as Phytophthora are widespread in the nursery industry, and in particular in native nurseries. Bushtucker plants are native plants. So be warned. Use the accreditation scheme which, after all, is for your own protection, and don’t put the success of your whole venture at risk.

8. Orchard management.

Results are proportional to effort: if you’re going into bushtucker because they’re native (‘bush’) plants and so they’re easy to grow, then think again!

Bushtucker plants are no different from other plants – if they are going to grow well, and produce good crops of fruit, then will require the same amount of time and effort as any other plant. You can’t just bung them in and forget them – if you do, you’ll never see an income.

If you reckon that they produce loads of fruit in the wild without any help from mankind, then consider this – for every plant in the wild which survives, grows to maturity and produces fruit, there are probably millions that fall by the wayside – die from lack of water or disease, get eaten, succumb to competition, or simply just fade away.

Whichever way you look at it, the message is this: if you want to earn income from your orchard, you must be prepared to put effort into it, no matter what the crop is.

Soil preparation: as all farmers know, soil preparation is one of the main keys to a successful crop. The same is true of bushtucker. If soil is hard, your plants won’t grow. So get in there and prepare the ground in the same way as if you were planting an orchard of mangoes or lychees.

Orchard layout: there are various ways to approach this. The traditional system of planting mono-cultures (i.e. a plot of just the one species) is the easiest to manage in that every plant has the same requirements for water, fertiliser, harvesting and pest management. Pest management – that’s the weakness in the system, because there will be pests (a mono-culture is the best way known to man to attract pests to a crop) and so pest management will be a major activity in your orchard.

For this reason, many farmers choose to diversify in an attempt to confuse and confound the pests. Nevertheless, other management problems such as watering, fertilising and harvesting, generally mean that some degree of order has to be imposed on the orchard layout.

Perhaps the best compromise is to plant a mixed plot of several different, unrelated species, but with each species in a row.

Windbreaks: incorporate windbreaks into your orchard right from the start, and plant them with native plants so that the windbreak forms part of your pest management system. Native plants attract native birds; and native birds (particularly honeyeaters) consume vast amounts of insects. Your windbreak will also be a natural source of other agents of biological control such as predatory mites and wasps. This is not to say that you can throw away your chemicals and spraying gear, but you will certainly need to spray less. In this environmentally aware day and age, plan for an integrated pest management programme from the start.

Spacing and sunlight: Most bushtucker plants suitable for North Queensland orchards are rainforest plants. So are mangoes, lychees and avocados, albeit from another part of the world. Everyone knows that these crops not only grow in full sun, but they must be spaced to give sunlight to all parts of the crown.

The same logic applies to bushtucker. Don’t fall into the popular misconception that rainforest plants need shade. The foliage, flowers and fruit of a mature rainforest tree are up at the top of the canopy in the full sun – so, if you want your rainforest bushtucker plants to flower and fruit you must give them full sun in the orchard.

Fertilising: It is a common misconception that you don’t fertilise native plants. This is rubbish – native plants are still plants – like all plants they require nutrients in order to grow, and like all plants they therefore respond to fertiliser.

However, most Australian soils are acidic, and most are very low in phosphorous. Most Australian plants (and this includes bushtucker species) have therefore evolved to require acidic soils and low phosphorous fertilisers.

Therefore, to grow bushtucker (which are native plants) you will need acidic soils (a pH of between 5.5 and 6.5 is best). You will probably have an acidic soil anyway, so don’t add dolomite (which raises pH) without knowing exactly what you’re doing. If you raise the pH too high it is very difficult to correct, and you’ll be in trouble. If you have clay soils which need conditioning, use gypsum (not dolomite) since gypsum will not alter the pH.

Fertiliser will certainly boost your plants along. The golden rule is to use a low phosphorous fertiliser – 4%P at the very most, and preferably about 2.5%.
The actual choice of fertiliser is then up to you and your wallet – there’s nothing wrong with organic fertilisers, but the cheapest way to go is inorganic such as Incitec 77S, which gives a very good growth response. If you intend to regulate flowering and fruiting with fertiliser, just remember to check the P level!

Improved varieties: Bushtucker is a relatively new industry, certainly newer than mangoes, potatoes and sugar cane. There has been no time for breeding programmes to produce improved varieties. However, there is room for initial selection by propagating from parent plants with better yields. Such plants may cost more to buy, but the greater returns from your crop will make this investment worthwhile.

As in all endeavours in life, the more effort (or money) you are prepared to put up from, the greater returns you will reap. Conversely, a cheapskate project will no doubt yield minimal returns.

9. Some species worth planting.

And finally, here’s s short list of a few species worth planting in a bushtucker orchard in North Queensland.

Please don’t rush in blindly and plant these without considering everything we’ve said above – there’s more to choose from than this, and your final choice will depend on balancing a whole range of different factors.

Syzygium fibrosum (Fibrous Satinash): this is one of the lilly-pillies. All lilly-pillies have edible fruit, but some are definitely more palatable than others. This one has a strong flavour and makes excellent jams and jellies. Syzygium fibrosum grows to about 4 metres high and about 3 metres wide, and will fruit within two years. Space plants about 4 metres apart within the rows, and space the rows about 7 metres apart, for maximum sunlight to all parts of crown.

Acronychia acidula (Lemon Aspen): the fruit of this plant is already harvested in large quantities for the restaurant trade – it makes superb sauces and sorbets. In cultivation it grows to about 5 metres with a spread of about 3 metres but this depends on your location. Since this plant fruits along the branches, spacing of plants it not so critical.

Diploglottis spp (Native Tamarinds): these plants are closely related to Lychee – they have a similar fruit structure, but the flesh is orange and is quite astringent. They have a strong flavour and make refreshing drinks. There are 3 species worth growing – D. smithii, D. bracteata, D. diphyllostegia. Selection of the particular species will depend on the location of your orchard. Because these plants flower and fruit terminally, spacing should be calculated so that the plants do not touch.

Davidsonia pruriens (Davidson’s Plum): this plant is well known. The large purple fruit have a strong flavour and make excellent jams, jellies, sauces and chutneys. This plant is really only suited to orchards in wetter areas. It should be pruned when young to keep the height down for ease of harvesting, and to ensure multiple branches in order to maximise the quantity of fruit produced.

Athertonia diversifolia (Atherton Oak): this plant is closely related to the macadamia nut. The white nut in encased in a very hard shell which must be cracked. This plant is not very easy to grow successfully but it is next to impossible to harvest good quantities of nuts form the wild on a reliable basis and so this plant is probably an economical proposition in the right location (eg Topaz).

Flacourtia sp (Cape Plum): this plant has fruit which look like cherries, and taste rather like cherries too. It grows to about 3 metres high and 3 metres wide in a dense round bush with foliage to the ground. Spacing of plants will depend on rainfall, but an average spacing would be about 3 metres apart with about 6 metres between the rows. Only female plants produce fruit, so you will need to purchase cutting-grown plants to guarantee the sex. Buy mostly high yielding female trees but include a small percentage of male trees to ensure pollination and fruit production.

3 Replies to “Commercial Bushtucker Production – a North Queensland perspective”

  1. I would just like to let you know that we made our first batch of Flacourtia Jam this weekend. And it is absolutely delicious. It tastes like raspberries. I had a bit of trouble getting it to set properly, but we’ll sort that out in the next batch. Thanks Yuruga. You sold me the tree 4 years ago!

  2. Hello. I’ve bought a 7 acre block on the Tablelands, near Malanda (and Atherton).

    I have approx. 3 large Athertonia Diversafolia (Atherton Nut) trees. They are self seeding, as I’ve found numerous ‘baby’ seedlings around the trees.

    The trees are fruiting well, having found the fruit to be green and round. I just don’t know what i’m meant to do with them to get the nut, or when they are deemed ‘ripe’. I have taken one off of the tree and left it thinking it would dry out, but it went black and started to get mouldy.

    Any information about this nut tree would be greatly appreciated, as i’m more than eager to try the yummy nut.

    Thank you, regards

    Donna McGrory

    1. The fruit are not ripe until they have turned from green to blue. At this stage, peel/scrape off the blue flesh, and crack open the nut. The nut is very hard and takes a bit of skill and practice to crack. Holding it vertically and tapping along the join line should split the two halves open.

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