The history of the world pepper trade is an old one. Up until the 18th century pepper was such a valuable commodity that it was used to pay taxes, levies and rent. This has changed completely. The price of this product now fluctuates dramatically just like sugar, coffee and cocoa. Last year saw the lowest prices for twenty years. In fact so low that in India it was the first time ever that chillies fetched higher prices than pepper. The situation in some pepper-growing areas was so depressed that many growers could not cope with the financial disaster brought upon them, that many a farmer had to be admitted to a mental hospital!
For the last 3 years, the average international trade was 145,000 tonnes, of which India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil supplied 90%. Viet Nam and Thailand are emerging as important exporters of pepper.
On the consumer side, the United States imports between 1,200 and 1,500 tonnes a year. As far as we know the Campagnalo brothers are the only pepper producers in Australia.
The spice, red, black, white and green pepper, comes from a climbing vine Piper nigrum of the Piperaceae family. It is native to the Malabar Coast, South East India. The pepper culture has since spread all over South East Asia and as far as south Brazil. In the wild it will grow to 15 metres and higher.
The pepper vine produce strings, panicles, 7 to 20cm long, with berries clustered around the panicle.
A high-producing pepper garden in Malaysia would produce up to 3 tonnes per acre. Pepper needs high rainfall to produce well, so the area between Tully and Babinda is ideally suited for this tropical product. In our tropical rainforest, you may find many species of wild pepper. The Aborigines know the use of a few to treat some illnesses!
The Levi Estate from the Campagnola family is a sugar cane and pepper enterprise. Since 1986, the brothers Levi and Loui opened up their four acres of pepper orchard. This year they will have three acres in full production.
The vine is grown in full sun on dead hosts, a wooden pole about two metres high, to facilitate easy picking of the berries. The harvest is still mostly done by hand, but good progress has been made with a self-designed harvester. Some time in the near future, all the pepper will be harvested mechanically.
Last year the production was 1½ tonnes of black pepper, and for the first time the fresh green peppercorns were successfully marketed in Australia.
Levi has tried a number of varieties from Malaysia, Thailand and Hawaii. All of them are doing well and there is little difference in their production.
So far they have had no major problems with pests and diseases.
The Levi Estate is selling their product under the brand name of "Aussie Pepper". It is sold as fine-ground kibble, cracked and as whole black pepper corn. The brothers take pride in saying that their product is totally Australian and an import replacement.
With such low prices for pepper at the world market, Levi can't see millionaires arising out of this industry. However the Australian market is large enough to accommodate many more growers interested in trying something different or as a side line.
DATE: July 1993
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