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Pick of the crop: welcome to the Queensland citrus farm where the wildlife is returning, the profits are rolling in and the employees can't bear to retire.

AN OCCASIONAL VOICE can be heard from the block of lemon trees where a score of pickers are systematically harvesting fruit which, within days, will be in capital city shops or on their way overseas. A family of wallabies contentedly grazes on the nearby grassy bank, hopping slowly away as a forklift tractor arrives to collect the filled bins.

"That mob of wallabies is usually here at this time of day" reflects Col Symonds, the farm manager at Abbotsleigh Citrus. "But there are plenty more families of wallabies and roos on the place now"

Col has worked on what is now the Abbotsleigh Citrus property for 30 years, long before the award-winning citrus company was even imagined. I ask him what it's like now, working for Abbotsleigh. He thinks for a bit. "It's definitely Different. I'd have to say that. But it is darned exciting too." What Col is referring to is the complete transformation of the former cattle and sugar cane farming operation that was previously carried out on the 518 hectare property inland from Queensland's coastal city of Bundaberg. The cattle and cane are now long gone and 48,000 flourishing citrus trees have appeared in their place. A $7 million state-of-the-art packshed has been constructed and is dispatching truckloads of premium citrus fruit daily.

What makes this six-year-old company "darned exciting", as Col puts it, is Abbotsleigh's twin quests for excellence and environmental care.

Before a single citrus tree was planted at Abbotsleigh, there was a concerted and well-planned effort to repair the land and re-vitalise the soil structure after generations of environmental negligence.

Orchard catchment run-off was impeded so as to minimise soil erosion. A highly efficient under-tree micro-sprinkler irrigation system was installed and the surrounding native vegetation has been rejuvenated by the planting of indigenous species and removal of exotic weeds. The days of predator feral animals living on a diet of native birds and marsupials are also well and truly over.

Citrus plantings commenced in 1996 and, simultaneously, an Integrated Pest Management program for the biological control of citrus pests was introduced. This system outmoded the traditional agricultural practice of calendar-based chemical spraying.

A modern citrus packing facility was built using the latest technology and processes, many of which are unique to Abbotsleigh. It runs on a low energy, low waste, minimal chemical and maximum recycling basis.

The twin quests vision was becoming reality.

A comprehensive, integrated quality assurance and environmental management system was developed at Abbotsleigh which would unexpectedly become Australia's finest. Abbotsleigh's quality and environmental manager Scott Yeoman explains:

"We knew we really needed a single integrated program combining world's best practice QA and an Environmental Management System (EMS)."

After being the first horticulturalists on mainland Australia to be accredited to the International Environmental Standard ISO 14001, Abbotsleigh successfully merged its QA and EMS into the unique Abbotsleigh Farm Management Plan.

After six years, the environmental outcomes are a delight, although a great deal of work has yet to be completed. Over 40,000 native trees have been planted and weed removal of such invasive and environmentally disruptive species as Cat's Claw Creeper (Macfadyena unguis-catii), Castor-Oil Plant (Ricinus communis), and Balloon Vine (Cardiospermum grandiflorum) is well under way.

Since the elimination of feral animals from the property, the biodiversity is springing back to life. Marsupials and native mammals such as wallabies, bandicoots, echidnas and various possums are seen in increasing numbers, and over 120 bird species have been identified by BOCA ornithologists. Rehabilitated animals will soon be released on the property as it has effectively become a wildlife refuge. Indeed, a legally-binding Nature Refuge status is currently being implemented.

River-dwelling fauna too are benefiting from Abbotsleigh's minimal chemical use, targeted fertiliser inputs and negligible contribution to siltation. And when the water impoundment behind the nearby Walla Weir was at extremely low levels a year ago, Abbotsleigh staff joined environmentalists in the rescue of the endangered Queensland lungfish. Walking through thigh-deep mud, workers carried the heavy `living fossils' to the few remaining pools of water.

Genevieve Carruthers, the Environmental Systems Specialist based at the NSW Wollongbar Agriculture Institute recently commented that, "The environmental management system at the Abbotsleigh site is, to my knowledge, the only one of its kind on any horticultural enterprise of similar size and complexity in Australia, and possibly the world."

Abbotsleigh's managing director, Mr Ray Whear, is rather embarrassed and surprised by the many awards and accolades which have come Abbotsleigh's way. He believes the company has a long way to go before reaching its eventual environmental goals. But, he adds, they are nevertheless very grateful for the recognition as it reflects well on the hard work the dedicated staff have performed since day one.

These awards have included an environmental award from the local Jinjinburra Aboriginal community, and even one for excellence in electrical design at the packshed. One of the most pleasantly surprising awards has been winning the 2001 Banksia Environmental Foundation Award for Small Business Responsibility and Leadership.

Since winning the Banksia Award, school visits to the property have been increased so that younger Australians can learn about sustainable development principles. There have also been many tours of the property by industry, government and environmental groups, and Abbotsleigh staff regularly speak at environmental management and sustainable development conferences. A number of on-farm environmental research projects are also underway, including a University of Queensland lungfish breeding program.

Demonstrating commitment to the `triple bottom line' accountability, Abbotsleigh does not neglect its social responsibilities. Employment practices are non-discriminatory and an important current project at the farm involves students from the Bundaberg Special School who will `own' a section of Abbotsleigh's environmental areas. These students, who are studying horticulture, will participate in seed propagation, weed-removal and tree planting, while also being tutored in aspects of citrus husbandry.

Abbotsleigh's social and environmental commitment incorporated within a profit-seeking commercial entity has recently attracted the investment of Australia's most highly regarded ethical investment fund, Australian Ethical Investments Ltd.

The last word on Abbotsleigh belongs to Col Symonds as he packs his lunch box and thermos into his ute at the end of another long working day. He pauses before starting the engine. "I should have retired a year or so ago, but I can't imagine not being part of it all. It's a really marvellous place to be."

He drives off, leaving the native animals and birds in their protected habitat.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roydhouse, Clive
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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