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Cottee Orchard

My life has fallen into a few stages.

As a child, I lived in Box Hill when it was village. I then became pastor to the slums of inner Melbourne for eight years. I was then a country parson and a teacher at a one teacher bush school out at Jackson Creek in Western Victoria and then for 13 years, I was a suburban minister in one of Australia’s largest suburban ministries.

And then, for more than 27 years I’ve been Superintendent in Sydney of Wesley Mission, Australia’s largest church ministry.

I’ve told you stories of people in each of these places.

Tonight I want you to come with me into the heart of the city.

Before I even started as Superintendent of Wesley Mission I had to make a decision. This particular decision made in 1978 broke the indecision that had been making life difficult for many members of our board for more than four years. The board faced a problem. A very generous benefactor to the Mission had died and had left some property to Wesley Mission in his will.

Now you would think that there would be no trouble accepting such a gracious bequest but the problem was that the bequest had a number of problems involved in it and despite several reports to the board there was much indecision as to what should be done.

The story began in 1961 Mr Harold W. Cottee O.B.E., the man who was chairman of the company that developed the Cottee brand name for jams, foods and drinks in Australia, and who had developed that magnificent drink “Passiona” died. A few years earlier in 1961 he had started to establish on virgin land in South Australia on the River Murray an orchard of 500 acres. This huge property was 2 and a1/2 kilometres long and half a kilometre wide. It was on the banks of the River Murray at Paringa, South Australia. Mr Cottee had put a lot of effort into the development of this brand new virgin orchard in the 10 years prior to his ultimately death.

Mr Harold W. Cottee had supported Wesley Mission for years and had helped finance Alan Walker’s “Mission to the Nation.” He had supported Methodist Churches in Fiji and had planted huge passionfruit Plantations to give the Fijians work. The Fiji government had bestowed upon him the highest honours.

In his will he indicated that the orchard would be left to Wesley Mission for use in raising funds from the Dalmar Children’s Homes. This was a very generous benefaction. However he had died before the orchard had reached its maturity and as a result there were many problems even accepting it.

For four years the Wesley Mission board had called for reports about what should happen with the orchard.

When I was appointed the new Superintendent at the end of 1977 I soon found out that they wanted me to make a decision about what would happen with Cottee Orchard.

The problems when mentioned together seemed enormous. Many of our board members argued that it was not in Wesley Missions interest nor was it one of its core values to operate an orchard in South Australia. Further, the huge distance from head office would make management very difficult. Further, the financial position of the orchard demanded a great deal of capital input and they questioned if we had any right to spend any monies on capital development of what was at best an uncertain rural business. Furthermore the Mission didn’t have the money. So in spite of the generosity of the benefaction, it seemed it was better to sell off the orchard at hugely discounted price and take whatever we could and use it for the sake of children in our Dalmar Children’s Homes.

Before I even arrived as Superintendent I was made aware of this problem and of the resistance that many of the board members had for us accepting that bequest. I studied all of the reports very carefully.

The Australian citrus industry was warning of the future viability of citrus production. There was much citrus product being brought into Australia from the huge developments of Florida, California and Brazil. It looked like fruit growers in Australia would be up for a very tough time. In future profitability was quite unsure. Not only that but there were questions regarding the effectiveness of the present management and management demands concerning his future. There were also some liabilities that would need to be paid into the estate. These were in the order of $100,000, money which the Mission just did not have.

Future profits were uncertain and even if they were good it would take many years before the orchard would be able to stand on its own 2 feet and Wesley Mission get back the money they had invested in it. Furthermore the son of Harold W. Cottee, Mr Harold S. Cottee had reported that the orchard would really need considerable future cash injections over the next years to bring it up to full potential. Properly the strongest argument came from those board members that declared that the church wasn’t in the business of running an orchard and should keep right away from uncertain business ventures.It was true that we operated some opportunity shops but that is not quite the same as running one of the largest citrus orchards in the country.

What really helped me make up my mind as I studied all these reports was the fact that the son of Mr Harold W. Cottee, Mr Harold S. Cottee was keen that we should go ahead and invest in the orchard. If the mission were willing to do that he would be willing for a relatively low-cost of a retainer and vehicle for travel from Sydney to South Australia and return, to provide continuing management oversight and development of the entire property.

What really supported my thinking was thought I’d had a long time: “God isn’t making any more dirt”. All the land that will ever exist in Australia is already here. Therefore if we were to develop our acreage we would need to take whatever we could now, invest in long-term future developments so that with wise management and good stewardship of the soil we would have long-term future blessings.

I did not believe that the bequest would bring us any significant development in the foreseeable future but I was not in the business of a short-term industry. I had committed myself to working at Wesley Mission for the rest of my life. At that moment I was 39 years of age and I hoped I would have a long length of ministry going into the next century. Therefore it was in our interest to have a long-term development, which would hopefully raise funds on an annual basis to help care for children in need in Sydney. My answer was “yes, let’s accept the bequest, pay out $100,000 to the estate for the liabilities on it and let’s turned this into not only one of the largest citrus orchards in Australia but a viable and profitable operation so that it might bring glory to God and practical help to children in need.” So before I had even met with the board of Wesley Mission officially as Superintendent, I had told them to make the decision to accept Cottee Orchard and we would run it and make a profit from it. That was a very wise decision. The promised support of Harold S. Cottee has turned into an amazing commitment from him for the past 25 years he has provided direct management, oversight and ensured that Cottee Orchard has prospered and children have benefited. Harold .S.Cottee was helped by other significant laymen on the Board, such as Mr Harold Green AM and the late Professor Alf Pollard A.O. Dr Jim , OAM, later joined the Board.

The orchard today has 68,000 orange trees, thousand olive trees, 7000 newly planted almond trees, 2000 murcott and 1000 ellendale Mandarins.

We have also the very valuable licence to pump 2 and a half 1000,000 kilolitres of water out of the River Murray each year. In 1982, only 3 and a 1/2 years after making the decision to accept the orchard, I went to the site to officially open a new pumping station. We changed the pumping station from being right alongside the River Murray where it was subject to flood, to building it higher up on a bank above the danger of flood and the danger of the pumping station being hit by riverboats. The pumping station was a huge affair with a 400 horse power turbine pump backed up by a 250 horse power backup pump. Right at the beginning of our time of owning the orchard we had to invest $138,000 in the building of the new pumping shed. When I opened that pumping shed at an official ceremony attended by area television and press there was a huge amount of interest in what Wesley Mission was doing in the Riverina area.

We quickly discovered the problems of every owner of an agricultural property. For example we discovered that our trees were suffering from leaf curl. The problem was that all across the huge orchard there were thousands of high overhead sprinklers that sprayed water over large areas ensuring all the trees received the dutiful amount of irrigation. However, the River Murray was becoming rapidly saltier and the salt from the water landing on the leaves drying in the hot sun made the leaves of the citrus curl and the young fruit to drop off. We were faced with significant losses because of leaf curl. We brought out from Israel, where the orange farmers had considerably more experienced than we did of growing oranges in desert areas expert to look at water problem. He advised us to progressively change our overhead sprinklers and to replace them with under tree sprinklers, after all, the water needs to get to the root not of the leaves. Furthermore he urged us to develop what was then new to Australia, “trickle drip irrigation.” He amazed me by telling me that the huge orange tree only needed water to be dropped within the trees spread area even 1 ft.² of area could water a large tree.

If we provide under tree watering, particularly through trickle drip, we would have a more consistent delivery of water, there would be less danger of fungus of various kinds attacking the tree, there would be less pressure required on the pumps to bring the water up and hence a huge saving in electricity and there would be less water used hence saving on the cost of water. We introduced the trickle drip irrigation system and under tree sprinklers with wonderful success.

Just as that problem was solved with discovered another. Beneath the surface of the earth upon which the trees grew were a number of water tables (a very large dish shaped formation of clay.) The water from the irrigation was not sinking below these water tables and not disbursing hence mature trees were suffering because their routes were being drowned. We took advice from other growers in the area who informed us that these huge water tables extended for kilometres and sometimes with very, very deep so that it was almost impossible to drill through them. We were inspired by the fact that when a body was immersed in water in a domestic bath tub the water cannot get out of bath unless we pull out the plug. Attached at the end of every domestic bath is a simple drain. If you pull out the plug, the water runs away. The idea was, why not drill some drain holes through the rock and put plugs in them so that the right amount of water could be retained but when the water became too much, a plug could be pulled up in the water drain through the water table.

The local farmers laughed. The rock and clay could be so heavy that the drills could work all day and never get through it. It was a gamble with $20,000 worth of intense deep drilling through the subsurface to see if it would work.

God was on our side. The water tables that covered the entire area Cottee Orchard was not as solid nor as deep as the locals had estimated. We broke through and in the end drilled five bores or drainage holes through that rock shelf. Subsequently drainage trenches, pipes and bores were put in and a simple automatic valve opener was discovered. It works very simply. Citrus trees cannot have water lying around the roots otherwise they rot. Therefore the water table must be at least 1 and a 1/2 metres below the surface of the land. In each of the 200 test wells that put down which drilled drain hole through the rock and clay, we placed a simple valve with a float. The idea was as soon as the water table reached 1 1/2 metres below the surface of the ground, the float would lift up the plug in the hole deep below on the rock and the water would just flow out. When the water flowed out the float would come down and the plug would go in the hole once more. When the water table rises to near the root zone, drainage lines installed diverted the excess water to the five drainage bores. Hence none of the water we needed for the trees would be released but all of the excess water would be effectively drained through the rock. These days we take a great deal of attention to the water quantity and quality. We have neutron probes which go beneath the earth and electronically measure the quality of water that is there, the salinity of it, the amount of it and report back on a computer so that we can tell the last 10 tests for every tree in the area indicating the water requirements of each tree. Such probes also reveal if the tree is under stress because it has too much or too little water.

Today semi-trailers line up just after picking to be loaded to the hilt with oranges which are taken to be juiced and others which are taken to be sold as table fruit. Along with a number of other major growers in the area we joined “Vitor”, a growers cooperative to market and promote fruit. We send off fruit for sorting to Yandilla Park a branch of one of the largest citrus producers in the world. Over a million cartons of oranges are now exporting to countries overseas of every year. We sell fruit to the Original Juice Co. (OJC) owned by Mr. Nick Thyssen. We have a contract to supply over 2500 tonnes a year of Vaencias for the Australian juice market.

In the late 90’s we decided it was time to redevelop and expand our orchard and also to limit the losses if there is a bad downturn in the citrus market because of the aggressive promotion and dumping of low cost fresh fruit and juice from Florida, California and Brazil. Every year Brazil plants more new orange trees than there are orange trees in the whole of Australia. Consequently a six-year plan swung into being with some half million dollars being spent to initiate the program. This has meant we have increased and diversified our work, put in better draining and better irrigation. We have planted over 7000 almond trees whose crop is highly prized and valued as well as 3000 other trees of other citrus varieties more suited to the Australian fresh fruit market. And the question is “has is all been worth it?”

Well God hasn’t been making any more dirt lately, and the original donation of Mr Harold W. Cottee has turned out to be a remarkably generous gift to helping children and families in need in New South Wales. After all the costs of running Cottee Orchard plus the money put aside the new development and upgraded equipment and machinery have been taken into account, needy children in Sydney have benefited by more than two million dollars which has come from sale of oranges and orange juice.

Some years ago when I commissioned the new pumps I said “Man relies upon water. Before the land was formed the face of the earth was covered with water according to the book of Genesis. Water is the basic element of life. We understand it, its uses at its molecular structure, but we cannot cheaply make it and we cannot even cheaply desalinate it. We are utterly dependent upon God for water which is for us a river of life.” Standing there beside the River Murray I sait to the crowd, “Every day in every vineyard of the Riverland and the Barossa, God turns water into wine. Every day at Cottee Orchard, God’s warm smile turns salty Murray River water into sweet orange juice to nourish children.” And God has blessed that process over and over and over again and as a result children in need in Sydney have continued to be blessed for more than a quarter of a century following the death of our benefactor Mr Harold W. Cottee. I also praise highly the valued contribution for over a quarter of a century of his son, Harold S. Cottee who has made his father’s vision come true.

The city of Sydney would grow to be one of the world’s great cities and Wesley Mission would grow to be one of the world’s great churches and I was privileged to spend each day in the heart of both. special information

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