On land owned by a mining company, a tree thought to be a pest has turned into an incredible opportunity.
- Managing biodiversity has turned into a unique business opportunity for a NSW family
- They have drawn on Indigenous knowledge to extract valuable essential oil from the invasive white cypress pine
- They believe the business model could empower Indigenous communities who can stay on country to work
Phil and Cherie Thompson live on the outskirts of the New South Wales town of Dubbo, famous for its zoo.
What you won’t find in the zoo is the pink-tailed worm lizard.
Native to the area, it has been missing in action, partly due to the invasive native white cypress pine tree.
Mr Thompson, a Bidjara Bidjara/Kara Kara man from central Queensland, has been tasked with managing the biodiversity offset of the land, which includes culling the tree.
“We’re trying to recreate ecosystems for a rare, pink-tailed worm lizard, which is on the endangered list — I have personally never seen one,” he said.
“Once we thin out the cypress, the sunlight comes back, and what the sun does is start the grasses growing again, which means the ants can eat the grass seed again.
“Once the ants are back, the whole ecosystem can come back: the bugs, the beetles, the birds.”
Using ancient knowledge
Not content with seeing the trees go into the chipper, Mr Thompson sought guidance from local Wiradjuri elder Peter Peckham.
“We knew there [were] oils in the leaves,” Mr Peckham said.
“Traditionally we’d just pulled the leaves off, heated them up, put them on our wounds, whatever it was, bandaged it on.”
Mr Thompson said Mr Peckham’s expertise was invaluable.
“The thing I value most is, he’s here nearly every day, and he’s continually recalling what they used to use as kids, and [saying], ‘You know, Phil, we could extract this,'” he said.
This ancient knowledge birthed a new idea.
The pair spent two years working together to figure out how they could properly harvest precious oil from the leaves of the white cypress tree.
“The main component in this oil is a chemical called alpha pinene,” Mr Thompson said.
“It’s a natural anti-inflammatory.”
Using the leaves from the thinned trees, Mr Thompson and his wife Cherie created a business of essential oils, extracting the substance on-site.
They cut down the trees, separate the leaves from the wood, and then use equipment to extract the oil over six hours. It’s then sent to Sydney for refining and bottling.
“Essential oils is a real passion of mine,” Mr Thompson said.
“I could do it every day; I think about it 24/7.
Mrs Thompson, whose roots are from the Weilwan people from central-west New South Wales, is studying a master’s in business and says it has given her insights into their homegrown venture.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty with Phil if I have to, [and] go out and drive the truck or the tractor, but my main role is around marketing and growing the business,” she said.
Setting up the enterprise hasn’t been easy, and the couple has had their fair share of knocks.
“We had a lot of non-believers, that’s for sure, because they’ve never seen it before,” Mr Thompson said.
“Everybody thought I was mad.”
“He’d come home after a long day, and [say], ‘We’ll get there, we’ll get there,'” Mrs Thompson said.
Empowering Indigenous communities
The couple is looking at expanding their essential oil business into beauty products, but their aspirations are about more than profits.
Mr Thompson believes he is creating not just a small business, but a model that could be used in Indigenous communities across the country.
“There’s been a few times [when] we thought, ‘Oh this is too hard, it’s not working,’ but we just persisted and something got us through: the passion or the belief in what we’re trying to do, like we’re trying to create jobs in regional country zones,” he said.
“Particularly in Indigenous communities, no-one wants to leave home, so this is just a model that I thought of where you don’t have to go anywhere.
He’s also taken joy in sharing cultural knowledge with a whole new audience.
“Learning about traditional knowledge and putting it into some sort of contemporary product can keep that knowledge alive and have a really great product on the shelf for people,” he said.
“I wanted to show everybody, this actually works — we’ve proven it. It’s taken a while, but it actually works.”
As for the pink-tailed worm lizard, they’re still waiting and hoping for a sighting.
Watch the ABCTV premiere of Movin’ To The Country at 7.30pm Friday, or stream on iview.