Cotton farmers export orange juice to Asia

When the Estens family started growing oranges they had been cotton farmers for over 30 years. Dick Estens discusses why they decided to diversify, how they’re building a sustainable citrus industry and their success in exporting orange juice to Asia.

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Dick Estens and his family had been growing cotton in Moree, northern New South Wales, for more than 30 years when they saw a need to diversify.

“Flood irrigation helps us to use water efficiently but cotton has a relatively low return per megalitre,” says Estens, who features in the June pages of this year’s NAB Agribusiness calendar. “When we lost some of our groundwater in the cutbacks a few years ago we knew it was time to think about our options. We had no intention of reducing our cotton acreage but we wanted to gain more certainty by adding a second crop.”

Moree’s violent summer storms limited their options – nothing with a soft skin would survive. After researching a number of cropping and horticultural possibilities they settled on oranges.

“Oranges are quite resilient and an efficient producer, with net returns of up to $1000 a megalitre of water compared with about $150 for cotton,” he says. “Moree is also on the same latitude as some of the most successful citrus farms in the world. We were confident that growing citrus involved the least risk and would have the highest return on investment as long as we could secure an ongoing relationship with a juice company.”

Investing in juice

In 2008 the family purchased a 50 percent share in Grove Juice, a small, Brisbane-based company.

“One thing that made Grove Juice particularly attractive to us was the fact that they sell domestically in Australian dollars,” says Estens. “We get our income from cotton in US dollars, so that gives us a bit of a natural hedge.”

They waited until the deal was signed before planting a single orange tree.

“It’s vital that you have your market covered before you start spending money,” says Estens.

Their orchards now cover 250 hectares and they plan to produce close to 17,500 tonnes of oranges by 2023.

“This will meet Grove Juice’s domestic requirements and, in conjunction with our existing growers, enable us to supply a growing export market,” he continues.

Overseas expansion

The family recently started supplying juice to supermarkets in South Korea and Japan and they’re negotiating with outlets in four other Asian countries.

“The free trade agreements have helped us a lot,” says Estens.

Their export business is based in a new $7 million dollar factory with a high-tech bottling facility in Warwick, Queensland. The family plans to invest a further $10 million in building a second factory next door.

“Our aim is to establish a sustainable citrus industry in north-west New South Wales and southern Queensland,” Estens continues.

Adapt and innovate

Estens believes there are always opportunities for farmers prepared to innovate and adapt.

“You must constantly look at your farm and ask yourself whether you could get more returns by doing something differently,” he says. “Do the homework, do the spreadsheet work, see what’s viable and be innovative. There are bound to be challenges so you should be confident in your own abilities and ready to attack problems as they arise.”

He also advocates paying attention to the people around you. Founder and Co-chair of the Aboriginal Employment Strategy, Estens has been awarded the Human Rights Medal and made an officer of the Order of Australia for helping local Aboriginal people find jobs.

“Your own life is a lot more fulfilling when the team you’re working with are happy and motivated and you’re giving back to people and communities along the way,” he says.

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