Products used in essential oils are in high demand for Australian farmers, with more than 90 per cent of Australia’s natural oils being exported.
It’s not only benefiting traditional industries like tea tree and lavender — it’s also proving a cash cow for those harvesting rarer native ingredients.
As far back as colonisation, oils derived from our vast backyard were swiftly recognised as important commodities — including the famous Australian eucalyptus and Australian sandalwood.
But in the years that followed, wild harvesting became unprofitable and artificial substances began taking over.
A renewed push towards natural products in the past decade has seen oils back in business.
Perfumeries and beauty brands are also snapping up Australian oils for products that claim to help with ailments, calm the nerves or simply release sweet smells.
The science doesn’t back up all claims in this growing community, but increasing work is being done at universities and labs across Australia to determine exactly what properties Australian plants and trees may contain.
But the hype — whether it proves true or not — is generating income for farmers.
Reaching international standards
North America imports about 40 per cent of Australia’s oils, and Europe 50 per cent. The Asian market is also showing increasing interest.
Judith and Michael Bastille grow lavender at Crystal Brook Farm near Canberra.
It hasn’t always been a lavender crop, but after seeing the demand increase steadily year after year, the Bastilles have converted the farm over time.
“Lavender wasn’t the prominent crop from the very beginning, but it has become that now. We are in the process now, having some of the lavender being 13-15 years old, of replacing the lavender to maintain it as the prominent crop,” Mr Bastille said.
The couple have completed several study tours to France, which is arguably one of the leading nations to refine the craft of lavender distillation.
“Most of the people in the Australian Lavender Growers’ Association, and the other organisations we were involved with, didn’t have a clear knowledge of how things were done in France,” he said.
It was on these tours that the Bastilles made decisions about what to grow, and what sort of stills would produce oils to match international standards.
Tea tree oil worth the wait
Dee-Ann Prather’s family started growing tea tree on their northern New South Wales farm in 1993.
It was tough going for many years, after a massive oversupply sent many farmers out of business. But the Prather family stuck it out.
Ms Prather said such is the strength of essential oils, international companies are increasingly looking to buy into Australian businesses associated with the products.
“We’ve seen many of the multinationals come in and buy up the natural companies because they have the faith in the naturals market, and that the naturals isn’t a buzz; it’s here to stay,” she said.
The Prathers have planted around two million new trees, which will be ready to harvest in two years.
The seeds were from the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association’s Tea Tree Breeding Program, developed for their oil quality and high-yielding properties.
“The Australian Tea Tree Industry Association, in conjunction with the Government, have put millions of dollars into developing and choosing the right seeds to go into the tea tree industry,” Ms Prather said.
“So it’s collecting the correct seeds to use, and building up that capacity to grow tea tree in the best way possible.”
But injecting money into refining the crop isn’t the only big expense they have to grapple with.
Their biggest problem is the black market.
Industry plagued by copycats
The essential oils industry is plagued by copycat products which often falsely claim other countries of origin as their own — namely Australia.
Policing has increased in a number of countries against synthetic and fake essential oils, but many still slip through the cracks.
Ms Prather said it can be dangerous when people mistakenly believe they are using an authentic product.
“It’s a critical thing to address, for example with tea tree, if somebody starts buying what they think is tree tree oil and it’s adulterated, and it doesn’t work — or even worse, it harms because it’s been adulterated — then that’s going to have negative consequences for the tea tree industry. And it’s the same with any essential oil,” she said.
Legislation in Europe has seen more rigorous testing and restrictions placed on imported chemicals to protect human health and the environment.
“In Europe, we’re seeing a renewed interest in that sustainability, that traceability, of the essential oils, which has been fostered by the REACH legislation,” she said.
“There’s quite a bit of evidence that a lot of oils being imported into Europe have dubious backgrounds, so there’s a resurgence in the European companies wanting to make sure that they have full traceability of their essential oils.”
Number one advantage for Australia
David Johnson runs one of the many hundreds of companies in Australia which act as a conduit between farmers and buyers, and said it was the number one advantage for Australia’s industry.
Mr Johnson came to the business in a roundabout way, spending decades as a wool classer before turning his hand to oils.
“That gave me an insight into process and testing, and so I got very interested in the science of how things were done. And of course, dragging my continuing and extended love of the wool industry along with it, I began to see the applied aspects of everything we were doing in the wool industry,” Mr Johnson said.
Being from an agricultural background, he recognised the value to farmers who could continue producing livestock or one commodity, while planting a secondary essential crop used for oil as a way to make extra cash.
“Essential oils often don’t suffer the same sort of vagaries of income that other enterprises do. If you’re a sheep farmer, they find they can grow shelterbelts that are all bearing plants and they can make use of their shelter belts — both as a benefit to their sheep or cattle, or whatever animal they are running, but also get an income from the shelterbelt itself,” he said.
“I’m finding in the new generational farmers, who have a much broader view of what their enterprise capacities are, they’re looking for alternatives to just a single-mono enterprise or a dual enterprise. They feel more vulnerable, so what they’re looking for is diversification and we hope to help them do that.”
Mr Johnson said one real growth area he identified was native oils, and would like to see more native products both discovered and utilised.
He said Indigenous land owners were also starting to see that their knowledge of ancient remedies and bush herbs could become the next big thing.
“Fundamentally, there are commodity essential oils grown in Australia — like tea tree, and to a lesser extent eucalyptus, and lesser again, lavender,” Mr Johnson said.
“But the customers overseas want to see what else we can do, and that is not just of native origin, but also what we can grow that’s not customarily grown here.
“So their demand really is for diversity, something different, something that has special applications in aromatherapy or cosmetics. That doesn’t limit itself to essential oils — it can be native plants that provide valuable active extracts or infusions.”
One such product that fits that remit is Australian blue cypress oil.
Blue oil a native success
The vibrant blue oil has been used by the Tiwi Islands people for centuries.
Traditionally, the leaves were crushed to use for ailments and daily life right across northern Australia.
In more recent decades, the sturdy timber was also used for housing, with a commercial plantation established in Darwin in the 1950s.
In the late 1990s, former tour guide Vince Collins discovered a vibrant blue oil could be derived from the bark.
“It was the first time it was ever done — the distillation of the wood and bark together — which creates the blue oil,” Mr Collins said.
The product was picked up by the aromatherapy community, and tests are being conducted at several Australian universities to establish any medicinal qualities.
Young Living, a US-based company, recently signed a contract to sell the vibrant coloured oil abroad, primarily to the United States customers.
After a quarter of a century tinkering with the blue liquid, Vince Collins is finally seeing the fruits of his labour.
“One year I sold 90 kilos. It wasn’t much, but I had to get a job to keep myself going, to build the stills up,” he said.
“But now, I can employ people and it’s been a really steep growth in demand.”