Organically grown aloe vera is gaining a reputation.
Clean and green
Reporter: Liza Armstrong
First Published: 17/03/2002
Chipping weeds is a practice as old as agriculture itself. It remains an integral part of the maintenance cycle on this organic aloe vera farm half an hour west of Bundaberg in Queensland.
This 200 hectare operation is the showpiece of Australian Aloe Limited, a dominant player in the little-known industry.
What is known about it is the bad reputation it earned in the early 1980s when cane growers in the region were lured into planting considerable quantities of aloe barbadensis. The promises of good markets and big returns just did not eventuate and many were burnt by the plant renowned for its healing qualities.
But four growers maintained the faith and took over an ailing processing business and supplied it with their own hydroponically grown leaf.
By 1998, they were ready to retire and the healthy Hi-Tech Aloe business was reborn as Australian Aloe Limited.
Along with the name change came new farms and a more modern approach - organics.
"Biological, organic farming is a sustainable farming method, it will improve our soil, it will improve our environment on this farm over time and also it helps produce what we believe as we're in the health and therapeutics industry, it'll produce a higher quality product in the end," Farmer Manager, Shane Portner said.
Hydroponics has given way to land based cropping and chemical fertilisers to naturally occurring nutrients like lime, rock dust and chicken litter.
"Our chicken manure compost is a mixture of everything we've seen here so far, all turned in and presently cooking away, and once it's had its cooking time it'll be spread over the paddocks," Shane Portner said.
Although this prickly plant is naturally pest resistant, the well-fed soil attracts plenty of weeds - this special machine cooks them out of existence. It is only the more persistent crows foot grass that gets the special attention of the chippers.
"We've got a machine that virtually superheats water up to 150 degrees Celsius and when it's applied to the crop, it's still applied at about 98 degrees and that virtually cooks the plant as we go, and so it kills the weed instantly, we have a brown out at two days as opposed to a week or more with herbicides," Shane Portner said.
That is about the extent of mechanisation on the farm.
The tools for harvesting are simple - a small curved knife is all that's required. It slices through the pulpy flesh of the leaves. They are then packed carefully into crates for transportation to the factory.
Danny Butler is an old hand. He's been working with aloe vera in Bundaberg since the industry began.
"The way we plant it and I guess you'd have to say and working the soils properly for it and that, especially organic and that which is quite hard to get things, because you're not using any other poisons or anything like that so it's hands on," he said.
The plants are replaced every four years, with suckers, or pups, cut from the base and replanted in new blocks, leaving the soil to recover.
Frost is the deadly enemy of aloe vera, but that's not a problem in this region. Hail can be, but crops are spread over four farms to minimize risk. Despite its cactus-like appearance, aloe vera is actually a lily and that means it needs plenty of water.
“Drought, believe it or not, is a threat because we're producing gel, the gel in the leaves and aloe uses the gel should it run short of water in the soil, so that's a big threat," Shane Portner said.
And the gel is what it is all about. Full of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, it has been used through the ages as a healing aid and beauty treatment for skin.
It is edible too, but only when the bitter yellow aloin is removed.
The real extraction process though is done by sophisticated machinery at the company's new $4 million processing and manufacturing plant in Bundaberg. It converts 7000 tonnes of aloe vera leaf into around three million litres of gel each year.
The fish-like leaves are thoroughly washed before being cold pressed to release the sticky wonder substance. The actual process is a closely guarded secret Australian Aloe Limited is not keen to share with competitors.
The pure gel is then stabilised and pasteurised before being formulated into a range of raw aloe materials and packaged products.
Most people associate aloe vera with cosmetics or for treating sunburn and scars, but drinking aloe vera juice is meant to wonders for the digestive system, however the general public have needed some convincing, so athlete Jane Fleming is on board to promote a new range of flavoured juices and gels.
But overseas it's the aloe juice that's the best seller of all the aloe products, according to Australian Aloe Marketing Limited CEO Mats Johnson. He sees great potential for growth in food and beverages.
"We already see tendencies of aloe vera becoming a mainstream product. We are already delivering product to some beverage companies that blend our aloe vera with a soft drink type of drink. We also have customers within dairy industry who are adding our aloe vera into everyday branded yoghurts and there are even some using it in ice creams and cheeses and such products, so aloe vera is definitely here to stay and I think you will see it more and more on supermarket shelves in a wide range of products," he said.
To compete in a global market dominated by the US, China and South America, Australian Aloe Limited is aiming at the quality end of the business. Mats Johnson says it is already paying off.
"Some of the more famous ones are the Body Shop out of the United Kingdom which is a worldwide cosmetic company which focuses very strongly on only the best quality ingredients and they are, we are dealing with them now as a result of producing the highest quality products and having organic certification," Mats Johnson said.
He says having total control over the aloe from the paddock to the product is the key to attaining that quality.
"It probably is the most important aspect of our overall structure because we have to maintain control of all aspects of the operation. I've mentioned organic certification a number of times and it is obviously the most important aspect in delivering a high quality product into the manufacturing plants. Processing is another area where obviously we need to maintain maximum control, it's very easy to reduce or destroy the efficacy of the product if not manufactured under very strict parameters. So we need to maintain total control from a to z in our business to guarantee that our customers receive highest quality product," he said.
Australian Aloe Limited currently grows all its own raw material. But there are other opportunities for individual aloe vera growers, although few, if any, have anywhere near the amount of land planted.
Bill Murray grows just over a hectare of aloe vera on persimmon and avocado farm at Bauple near Maryborough. It was here already when he bought the place five years ago.
"For sure it's a good crop, it grows 12 months of the year so where say our persimmons where they're just a three month pick and then you're out of it, it's steady income all the time," Bill Murray said.
Every fortnight Bill ships about one and a half tonnes of aloe leaf to a Brisbane processing operation. It yields up to 850 litres of gel for which he is paid 75 cents a litre.
"We have steadily expanded it, but I'm hoping it will, and we are actually planting some more to keep up with that demand I'm hoping, but anyone going into it, really needs to research their market I think before they do plant any."
Bill's aloe leaf is part of the 500 tones of leaf processed at Aloe Vera Industries in Brisbane.
General manager Steve Kearton is cautiously optimistic about aloe vera's future.
"A lot of the limitation is the product itself. From a drinking perspective it's not something that people rush out to buy to have with breakfast, it's a medicinal product. There are legislative considerations with respect to advertising and talking about it, which limits the sort of things you can say, so a lot of sales are by word of mouth," he said.
He's not encouraging farmers to rush out and plant this peculiar lily.
"For small farmers I wouldn't say it's the world's best crop because in Queensland there's only two people that manufacture with it and the other people have their own plantations. So we're a smaller company but we're always looking for other growers on a smaller scale as we grow to supplement our supplies. But we're not looking for hundreds of people to grow acres and acres."
- Australian Aloe Limited
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