Steaming Ahead With Tea Tree Oil Production

By Julie Havercroft

Harvesting the tea tree plants

Organic tea tree oil counts for just 10 percent of the world’s total tea tree oil production and part of that comes from Zimbabwe. The Tippett brothers, just outside Marondera, are Africa’s largest organically certified producers.

History of the Operation – Chris Tippett started growing tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia), for essential oil, back in 1992. He also grew plots of lemongrass, citronella and eucalyptus smithii, to see if there was any market for essential oils, both locally and for export. This project included building an on-farm distillation plant. At the time, he collaborated with the University of Zimbabwe and DANIDA for the promotion of growing local herbs and oils. When his sons, Stu and Dave left agricultural college in the mid-nineties, they took over the running of this and expanded it. “We decided to specialise in organic tea tree production as we could see a future in it,” they say. The plots grew to 12ha and in 1995, they started marketing and exporting their product. With this, came further expansion of the crop. Today, total plantation hectarage stands at 120ha, with 36,000 plants per hectare. A yield of 20 tons of oil comes from this hectarage.

Gentle steaming in large tanks to release oil

This operation has been running for over 20 years and Dave stresses the importance of farmers having their market planned before they start growing something specialised like this, for a niche market. The brothers themselves found an agent to export and market it in Europe and America and have built up a relationship with their agent, with an emphasis on marketing its organic properties. In 1997, they obtained their organic certification. All products comply with EU regulations and maintaining this certification requires annual visits from an inspector to test their soil, water and processing of their crop. The plantations are very hardy and like having “wet feet” so they flourish in vleis and wetlands and on marginal land generally considered non-arable for conventional commercial crops. The only attention they receive is a covering of compost from the waste left over from the distillation process. They are not indigenous to Zimbabwe so have no natural predators or fungal diseases to attack them. Furthermore, the tea tree plant is perennial and can last up to 20-25 years once planted.

The harvesting has been worked into the overall cropping schedule. It is mechanically harvested in autumn, when it is a quiet period on the farm for the other crops. Once the tea tree is harvested, by a one-of-a-kind, specially modified tractor (it is driven backwards and the driver’s seat and the steering wheel had to be turned around so its hydraulic system is forward-facing and powers the rotating blades which harvest and shred the plants), it is taken to the distillation plant and loaded into a 17,000-litre tank. This holds six tons of the harvested tea tree. Once inside the tank, a long-period (4 hours) gentle steam distillation allows the whole oil to be collected with minimum temperature damage. The fragrance hangs in the air, cleaning your sinuses and lungs. During harvesting, the distillation plant runs for 24 hours, with six batches of four hours each. The oil/steam mix cool and separate, with the oil rising to the top. This oil is drained off and collected into a holding tank. The water goes back into a tank, to be used again for steaming. From there, the batches of oil go into a 5000-litre bowser and are mixed for uniformity. The purity of the oil is 99.9%. It then goes into special, epoxy coated drums to await dispatch. At the distillation plant, once the steaming process is finished, the waste is lifted out and goes onto compost heaps where it will break down for a year. It is this compost that then goes back onto the plantations, mulched into the soil to protect and nourish growing plants. There is a minimal waste as it is all recycled.

There has been a lot of interest from foreign investors looking to invest in expanding production as buyers will take as much as the brothers can produce. The brothers say investors are looking at developing Zimbabwe as world class organic producers of tea tree and eucalyptus smithii.

Properties of Tea Tree Oil

The anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties of tea tree are well known. It’s penetrating quality through skin and membranes enhances its ease of application and effectiveness in healing.

Properties of Eucalyptus Smithii Oil

For the relief of head colds, influenza and many respiratory ailments. Widely used in sauna baths and as a soothing massage rub to relax tense muscles. Other uses include a safe garden spray against slugs, earwigs and snails and in dish washing liquid.

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