The ups and downs of lychee growing in Boambee
This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 19.3.11
This is the first of a two-part interview with long-time lychee and banana grower Ted Knoblock. The second part will be published in a fortnight’s time.
Ted Knoblock, his wife Liz and their son Steve operate a family farm in the South Boambee Valley. When they first moved in back in 1977, Ted recalls, ‘there were just bananas and a few young avocadoes, with lantana, and tobacco bush and weeds down the front, and a few miserable cows.’
After considering and rejecting snowpeas, they decided to plant lychees, based on the advice of a member of the local Chinese community. ‘I didn’t know what a lychee was [back then]’, says Ted. They sourced cultivars of two varieties – the Bengal and the Tai So – from Mullumbimby. The first did very well, but the second ‘turned out to be a disaster’. A cyclone arrived in 1986 and blew down many of the Tai So trees, and ‘actually did us a favour’, says Ted, because ‘we replanted them with the Kwai-Mae Pink and the Wai Chee, which have both done very well’. Ted and Liz have also planted some of the newer varieties, like the Salathiel, although they are still too young to be producing as yet.
Ted and Liz have 2.7 hectares of their 60-acre property dedicated to lychees, around 500 trees in total. They are the southern-most lychee growers in Australia, although Ted reckons they could be grown as far south as Merimbula, because ‘they are a sub-tropical fruit.’
The Knoblocks have their orchard fully netted, an investment of around $100,000 which took several years to recoup. Prior to the netting, they were up more or the less the whole night during the season, trying to drive the fruit bats and rainbow lorikeets away from their crop. It became unbearable, hence netting was the only option. Other lychee farms have had to close down because they couldn’t afford to net their trees; in Ted’s view ‘you’ve got to net if you want to grow [fruit] commercially’ in this region. The net doesn’t just keep out the bats and the birds; it’s also saved the crop from hailstorm damage on two occasions.
Their average yield is now around 12 tonnes a year; they used to obtain up to 17 tonnes ‘but it was too much to handle’, says Ted, ‘so we reduced the size of the trees to reduce our workload a bit, because it’s just not economic [these days] to employ labour. If you can’t do it yourself, you might as well not bother.’
Most of the lychee crop goes to Sydney and Melbourne – apart from the delicious seconds, which are sold for a very reasonable price at the farmgate. The Knoblocks market share increased recently when a major grower on the north coast with several thousand trees went bankrupt.
Pest and an early experience with a non-performing variety aside, lychees have been good to Ted and Liz.
‘The [market] price has stayed pretty reasonable, and some years [it] has been excellent’, says Ted. ‘We can make a good living out of lychees – but at the end of the day, it’s only six weeks a year, and the rest of the time, you do something else – hopefully go down the beach! If I ever get to see the beach again’, he adds with a wry smile.
Lychees produce their first commercial crop about 10 years after planting, but can live as much as 200 or 300 years, and still be producing, Ted says. ‘I’ve got some photos of Chinese up lychee trees on the end of ropes – 1800 foot up!’
There is however a significant disease threat to the industry in Australia, ‘an unknown pathogen that attacks them – it’s a bit like phytophthora but it’s not phytophthora’, says Ted. ‘We’ve got about 16 trees affected at the moment, and we lose about 5 or 6 a year. And that’s a big loss, because a 30 year-old tree is probably worth a couple of thousand dollars a year. And you can’t do anything about it, there’s no solution’, because no-one yet knows what the pathogen is.
Let’s hope they find a solution soon, because many of us would hate to see the end of the Knoblocks’ beautiful lychee orchard. It would be a great loss for future generations of Coffs Coast residents too.