High in the rainforest of the Border Ranges, looking out over the Scenic Rim, is the Lime Caviar finger lime farm owned by Ian and Margie Douglas. Ian and Margie purchased their land in 1982, initially as a home away from home when on holidays, and began planting finger lime trees nearly ten years ago. Finger limes are an ancient Australian native citrus, eaten by Aboriginal people for thousands of years, found growing wild in the subtropical rainforests of South East Queensland and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Inside the fruit’s skin are hundreds of refreshing juice-filled pearls that differ in colour according to the variety. Ian and Margie moved to the mountain permanently in 2013, and have since poured their energy into raising the profile of the fruit, and establishing markets locally and internationally. Ian still works a seven-day week and he has recently celebrated his eightieth birthday. Although it has been tough getting this new industry off the ground, Ian and Margie have enjoyed the ride. They wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids. (www.limecaviar.net)
IAN & MARGIE DOUGLAS
How did you come to live in the Scenic Rim?
IAN: I was a barrister for forty-six years. One day I was sitting in a hotel in Sydney, having breakfast before I went to court, and I was looking in The Financial Review and this place was advertised. So, I rang up Marg and said, ‘There’s a place in Queensland we should have a look at.’ About a week later, we flew up, and it must have been February because it was wet and the grass was very tall.
MARGIE: We previously had land at Mount Nimmel, just behind the Gold Coast — sixteen acres with seedling avocado trees on it. We sold Mount Nimmel, and our unit on the Gold Coast, and bought this place.
IAN: My passion with Queensland, it came out of the blue. I went to school at Ipswich during the war. Lived at Amberley. I love this area. We were looking for a place in Queensland that wasn’t on the beach, somewhere that would give us holidays and would be a place of interest. So, we came and bought it. It had, what, ten or fifteen avocado trees on it? No houses, just grass and an old caravan down the bottom. We came up and fell in love with it. It was 1982.
MARGIE: Thirty-one years ago. We met the owner. We contacted him because it wasn’t going through an agent. We met them in Rathdowney and he drove us up. And we just sat here and said, ‘Okay. We’ll have it.’ And Ian made out this contract on a little piece of paper, and we signed it to say that we’d pay him a $2000 deposit. And the rest is history, because we knew nothing about farming. We knew nothing about this area at all. All we knew was we needed a four-wheel drive to get up here. Crazy in lots of ways. And never did I think we’d end up living here full-time. We’ve only been here full-time for two-and-a-half years. We thought if we’re going to be serious about this finger lime business, that’s what we need to do.
Why did you start growing finger limes?
MARGIE: Well, I bought one tree, and at that time I was looking to collect different lime trees. I had a kaffir lime, I had a Tahitian lime, some other sort of lime, and I’d bought in a nursery — they called it a native lime, and I had that growing in the garden. My brother was up here one day and it had a little piece of fruit on it. I didn’t know anything about finger limes at all. My brother, Barry, said to me, ‘Oh, can I have a taste?’ I said, ‘Oh, no. It might be poisonous.’ So, why it would be poisonous I don’t know. But I said not to eat it. But he did, and he said, ‘Oh, it is delicious.’
Anyway, then there was a show on Landline about finger limes. I contacted them and they gave me a number to call because they were looking for people to plant a thousand trees. Before that, there was a chef from Chicago guest-cheffing at Bennelong. He was talking about these lime caviars that are an Australian native — it was just a little bit in a magazine — and I said to Ian, ‘That’s what our tree is. It is a lime caviar. It’s a finger lime.’ So, that was when I pursued it and found out it had been on Landline, and we got our thousand trees and we’ve just added to them.
IAN: We had to wait about three years to get trees. A lot of them turned out to be very poor, so we have had to replace most of those. But we’ve stuck it out and it is now turning out to be good.
MARGIE: Not many people even knew what we were talking about. ‘What’s a finger lime? What’s a finger lime?’ So, the first twelve or eighteen months, I think, we spent our lives on the phone, ringing people about finger limes.
IAN: There just wasn’t any information you could go to, to tell you about growing finger limes, or marketing finger limes or how they travelled or if some varieties were better than others. There was just nothing. It was all seat-of-the-pants stuff. And I guess we all started from zero.
So, you’ve had to learn by trial and error?
IAN: Reuben, our farm manager, has been with us for thirty years, and now, collectively, we’re probably among the most knowledgeable people in the world, I guess. We’ve found they don’t like travelling and they don’t like temperature fluctuations, so we’ve had to deal with all that. Some varieties travel better than others. Others go off very quickly. We’ve engaged a food scientist and the cryovac company, and they did eighteen months work on trying to come up with a packaging arrangement that would extend the shelf life, so the fresh fruit would travel and get to the customers overseas in a condition where they’d have two or three weeks … We tried everything. Everything we tried actually shortened the shelf life, and techniques that are used for other things, like fruit and meat and so on, just didn’t work. So, we eventually came up with a packaging arrangement that works beautifully, and allows us to get product into Europe in a first-class condition. But it has taken a lot of work.
MARGIE: This year is the first year we’ve really had people calling us. People have now been coming to us and ordering, which is terrific. We still follow up, and we hold people’s hands and try to nurture our customers. And we love to go and meet the chefs. You know, we love to do deliveries ourselves.
Where do you sell your product?
IAN: We export to Nature’s Pride in Holland, and they distribute into France, mainly. We are about to export into London. We are exporting frozen into America, to a company in Miami that’s making vodka out of them. We’re exporting frozen into Wellington where there’s a company making beer out of them. We’re exporting into Auckland to a distribution company who is supplying top restaurants and cruise ships.
One of the marketing problems is, because Australia has fruit fly and because they are citrus, a lot of overseas countries put those two factors together and come up with an answer, which says, ‘Well, finger limes must attract fruit fly.’ Work has been conducted that shows finger limes are not a host to fruit fly. But, nevertheless, those barriers exist.
Domestically, we use Express Post. We did initially start using agents, but we’ve found if you, say, put a hundred kilos in a truck and send it to Melbourne, it sits in a warehouse somewhere for two or three weeks before it is distributed. And the distributor is also distributing avocados and bananas and everything else, so finger limes don’t feature very highly in their hierarchy of preferences. So, we decided we’d cut the middleman out and do it directly, and that has been hugely successful. For instance, last year we didn’t have one finger lime that was sent anywhere in the world that was rejected by a chef. There wasn’t one that was off. So, that shows you we must be doing the right thing.
What does a typical day look like?
IAN: Reuben could describe that. We start picking at about seven o’clock in the morning and pick through until about lunchtime. And then sort in the afternoon, then, depending upon whether it is going domestically in the post, or being delivered in the Brisbane area, or going on an aeroplane to go overseas, it could be packed anywhere between three o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock in the morning. Then it is taken down to the post office or Reuben will take it through to CT Freight in Brisbane where it goes through customs and goes on a plane that day. We pick today, sort it this afternoon, it goes to customs tomorrow morning, it is on a plane by midday, eighteen hours later it is being distributed in Holland. They get it when it is only a couple of days old.
What are the best things about the lifestyle?
MARGIE: Waking up in the morning and looking at the view. That’s something we never take for granted, or think, ‘Why am I here?’ It is ever changing. It is like a drug. It just sort of draws you. It is all encompassing. We probably won’t be here to be old, old people, because it is not easy. You know, you can’t just go down the street to buy a pint of milk. It takes lots of planning and organisation. Ian really works seven days a week.
IAN: No one day is the same as the next day.
MARGIE: And I think, ‘Where would I really want to live other than here?’ Living in a house on a suburban street would be very difficult. Well, Reuben must love it here because Reuben comes up every day from Kooralbyn. I’d like a cent for every time he’s driven up and down. I don’t know. He just keeps on keeping on. Reuben is a bit like one of our own kids. He’s very much a part of it, and Michael as well. Michael would have been here for twenty-eight years.
IAN: It is a very special location. It is so good we’re planning on putting in a couple of glamping tents to let other people have some of the experience. We’ll put those right down the other end of the property, on the edge of the high part of the land, and they’ll have a magnificent view.
MARGIE: We get a lot of bushwalkers through, because our property goes right to the border fence. They usually have to stop somewhere overnight. They’ll ask if it is okay and pitch their tent down the end of the property. That’s what prompted us to think we could put up a couple of gorgeous glamping tents and make it special for couples — have a romantic weekend away.
IAN: Just over the other side of the fence is national park, so we can never be built out. You step over the fence and you are in NSW.
Tell us about the guinea fowl?
MARGIE: We have the guinea fowl because of ticks and insects and grubs around the orchards. They just free range the whole time.
IAN: In the first couple of years, when we didn’t have them, we had quite a few insects on the trees — stink bugs and so on — and they don’t seem to be around as much. No ticks.
MARGIE: We only have twenty now, because I think a wedge-tailed eagle comes and gets them. But these ones are pretty streetwise. They’re bred here and you’ll always hear if something is around. They’ll get under the trees so the hawk can’t swoop down on them, or the wedge-tailed eagle. And we get the grey goshawks here. The guinea fowl will let you know. I have a fabulous video of them chasing a big goanna up the fence. They didn’t attack it or anything; they just simply ran along with it until the goanna gave up. They’ve been fabulous, really.
You seem to be pioneering the finger lime industry in Australia …
MARGIE: There really hasn’t been anybody that can help. Not really. Ian has spent his life on that thingo [the computer], researching and trying to find answers. He’s a lateral thinker. So, he’s done an incredible amount of work. Unbelievable.
IAN: But it has been fun. No-one has been able to help us. It was frustrating early on. When the industry started to develop, a lot of people got involved and a lot of them got burnt, because those that successfully grew finger limes found they couldn’t sell them and ended up dumping the product on the markets. And there was another group of people who had trees that just didn’t work. The trees died. We had, what, 400 trees here that just keeled over because they weren’t grafted properly in the first place and were in bad potting mix. People were taken advantage of by people flogging trees at high prices and ripping people off. So, the first four or five years of the commercialisation of finger limes was a bad experience for a lot of people. But we’ve overcome that. We now know what a good variety is, and we know who to go to to get good trees. So, really, the problem we have now is to continue to keep up with the demand. People now will have a much better experience than the people who first started because they’ll have the benefit of our experience.