Taste of China

Lauren CelenzaCountryman

When travelling shearer Graeme Tee and his wife, Carol, decided to settle down on a small block in Beverley, they had no idea how to make money from 100 acres.

They knew they needed to diversify the sheep and wheat country into something more lucrative, but what would grow on the land?

In 2004, a family member suggested they try Chinese date trees, or jujubes.

The Tees started off planting 50 trees and put in more each year until they had 150.

“They taste like an apple and a pear in one,” Graeme said. “The small ones are very sweet and the Chinese say if you eat one a day, you will live longer.”

Graeme said growing the jujube trees was similar to growing apples, however they grew well in saline soil and in hot and dry weather.

“They can take up to 3000 parts per million of salt,” he said. “They seem to grow anywhere. Someone even has them growing up at Cue and the sheep can eat the foliage.”

Graeme said despite them being known as a Chinese date they were totally different from the dates from palms. “You can eat these ones fresh from the tree or even dry or candy them,” he said.

After the trees were planted, Graeme said they could take five years to get into full production.

“They are pretty hardy and they are easy to grow,” he said. “Once you get them growing you are battling to kill them.

“Even if you don’t water them they can survive.”

Carol, who grew up on an orchard in New South Wales, said jujube trees were easy to manage.

“You have to thin them out and prune them, but they fruit in the same spot every year,” she said.

“That’s the beauty of them — you don’t need fresh growth to have fruit. For the first two years the trees looked after themselves because we were always away, but the birds got to them and stripped all the fruit so we now have netting.”

Graeme said the trees would grow to about 12m if they were allowed to, but could be pruned to fit a certain shape. “You can prune them to keep them low so they are easier to harvest,” he said.

Graeme said once they netted the trees they started to get more fruit.

“A fruiting spur shoots from the same spot each year and it will try to grow another limb from the area, but pruning keeps them to size,” he said. “We should get about 40–50kg from each tree, but the bigger the tree the more fruit you get.”

Graeme said they were working on building a fresh jujube market in WA. He said by drought proofing their property with the jujubes, they realised money could be made from 100 acres. “We want to put in another 200 trees at least,” he said.

The varieties Graeme and Carol grow include Li, which is the larger variety, Chiko, which looks like a small apple, and the pear-shaped Tarjan.

The Department of Agriculture and Food has jumped on the jujube bandwagon.

Department researcher Fucheng Shan visited China before Christmas last year on a trip organised by the Federal Government to study jujube cultivation and co-investment opportunities. The delegation was led by Phil Melville, of Elders Real Estate, and included a local grower.

Dr Shan is optimistic about future prospects for jujubes, and possible trade with China and South-East Asia, where WA crops would be counter-seasonal to local supplies and could attract premium prices.

“The marketing information gathered on our trip to China confirmed that jujube could become a new and profitable agricultural industry,” he said.

“WA has extensive areas with suitable climate and soil plus a stable political system that would attract Chinese investors.”

WA jujubes are picked from February to April. The trees are dormant in winter.

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