Tea tree industry under threat

Really worried: Chinderah tea tree farmers Pat and Paul Bolster say it’s just a matter of time before deadly myrtle rust hits.
Really worried: Chinderah tea tree farmers Pat and Paul Bolster say it’s just a matter of time before deadly myrtle rust hits. John Gass

A DEADLY plant disease that has the potential to devastate tea tree plantations, eucalypt plantations and native forests has been found 65km away in Byron Bay and it's only a matter of time until it hits the Tweed.

Myrtle rust produces masses of powdery bright yellow or orange-yellow spores on infected plant parts and particularly attacks new leaf growth, causing leaves to buckle, twist or die.

Chinderah tea tree plantation farmers Pat and Paul Bolster said it's not a matter of if the disease will hit the Tweed but when.

“In a perfect world, it won't hit here until we harvest in June,” Mr Bolster said.

“But it will come.

“We are really worried.”

The disease, which originated in South America, was first identified in April on the Central Coast of NSW with incursions now identified at Coffs Harbour, Byron Bay, Lismore and Caboolture.

Mrs Bolster said their Chinderah plantation will implement biosecurity measures starting today.

“We will make everyone coming to the plantation visit the house, not the shed, first,” she said.

“We will be making signs.

“Those who want to work on our property will have to wear disposable overalls and we will also have a foot wash.

“We are trying to do our best to minimise the exposure of the disease.”

It is not yet known how myrtle rust has been spreading but Mrs Bolster has her own theory.

“In my personal opinion, it's been spreading by people,” she said.

“People have brushed up against an infected plant, and it can even live in the seat of the car.

“Then it could blow off the car or clothing onto native plants.”

Australian Tea Tree Industry Association development officer Tony Larkman said tea tree farmers are helpless against the disease.

“It's absolutely devastating for tea tree farmers, and there is nothing we can do to stop it,” Mr Larkman said.

“In the best case scenario we can control it with standard fungicides.

“But it won't just affect tea trees, it will affect koala feed trees, and we don't know what will happen when it does that, but we are probably going to find out.”

The Bolsters were the first tea tree plantation to send a sample to CSIRO to see what effect the disease would have on tea trees.

“Tea trees are continuously producing new leaf, which means they are always extremely vulnerable to attack by this disease,” she said.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is currently testing chemicals to use on infected plants.

The Bolsters are urging Tweed residents to be on alert for the disease, especially Tweed nurseries.

“If you see myrtle rust, don't touch it and report it immediately to the Exotic Pest Hotline 1800 084 881.”

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