Livin’ La Vida Lychee
Tibby Dixon breeds Australia’s first seedless lychee

The seedless lychee has finally arrived in Australia and it promises to be a potentially lucrative variety for the industry.

Tibby Dixon recently harvested the first few kilos of the fruit which he bred selectively over the course of twenty years from a single tree imported from China for US $5000.

The newly coveted variety is yet to be planted on a commercial scale but may be just the thing that opens the floodgates to domestic and international markets.

Tibby’s developed multiple varieties at his Rainbow Orchard in Sarina but it’s the seedless lychee that’s made headlines all over Australia.

It’s a medium-sized, very flavoursome fruit that he says tastes a bit like pineapple.

“If you’re an avid lychee eater, you’ll notice a different flavour, even our Asian friends say it’s definitely got a pineapple-ly aftertaste,” he said. “It’s something special that gets your tastebuds going which is exactly what we’re looking for.”

Seedless lychees have been available in China albeit in small volumes.

Australia has the advantage of the longest lychee production season in the world, producing fruit from late October to March.

The extended harvest window is a huge benefit to exporting overseas because markets like Hong Kong can be assured of a constant supply of lychees of up to four months coinciding with the Lunar New Year.

Tibby said he’ll soon have enough marcotted lychees to sell to growers across the eastern seaboard. If all goes well Australian customers’ ought to see the seedless lychee on supermarket shelves in a couple of years.

Always at the forefront of innovation and best management practice, Tibby’s become a beloved pioneer of the Australian lychee industry.

In the 80s, he designed his own hydrocooler – an invention that significantly improved the quality and marketability of his fruit. He dipped his fruit in cold water immediately after harvest and then packed it into cartons at 10 degrees Celsius.

He was also one of the first growers to replace his under-tree sprinkler system with a drip system and, as a result, maintained yields using much less water. Drip was not only more efficient but also much easier to manage.

In addition, he tripled his yields early on by gradually increasing tree density from the standard spacing of 10 metres by 10 metres to a more intensive six metres by two metres.

This planting design was unheard of at the time but Tibby said the rewards were clear.

“There is a bit more pruning but it’s safer – you don’t need ladders, it’s easier to pick, it’s easy to spray, it’s easy to net. You’ve got five times the amount of trees in that row,” he said.

“End of story you get more money in your back pocket.”

Tibby still grows fruit for production but it’s no longer his main focus. Nowadays it’s all about marcotting – growing trees for propagation which he in turn sells to other growers.

“Soon we’ll hire a few people to start propagating, and that lasts about a month. Then the trees come off in August, September and October,” Tibby said.

“We pre-cool them, put them in the cold room, wet them down, put them in bins and transport them at eight degrees to their new homes. From there the growers get them and put them into pots.”

The number of marcots Tibby sells varies from season to season. He’s already received interest from four new growers this year. But he doesn’t sell to just anyone. It’s about more than making a quick buck.

“I’m more for the industry than making money. It’s all about getting the right product in the right place,” he said.

“If a grower rings up and asks me all the right questions – cos some people are out there just to get a few of the new varieties for themselves.

“Some of the bigger growers, I’ll go to their farms and have a look at their property. Last week I was in Mareeba and the weekend before that I was in Childers.

“I don’t want to sell trees to people that are in an area that’s going to be no good.”

Of the 17 varieties that he’s successfully imported, Tibby has so far released four for commercial production and is slowly introducing others to the industry including another seedless lychee.

“Along with Su Lin San – that’s the one everyone’s been raving over – I’ve got the San Su Lin,” Tibby said.

“It’s in early stages but in a couple of years’ time I’ll know if it measures up. I’ve planted them side by side so it’s going to be an easy comparison. Visually and taste-wise I’ll know straight away,” he said.

Today Tibby only has 2000 trees on his property – a reflection of a change in direction.

His orchard doubles as a demonstration orchard where growers can witness his trees in bloom in a commercial setting, including the new varieties he’s introduced:

Chompogo—a later season variety that bears a full crop in five to six years. Fruit weight averages 30–40 g;

Erdon Lee—a large mid-season variety that starts bearing in two to three years. Fruit weight can be over 100 g; and

Baitaying—a very early variety that comes into full production in year four, and the fruit has excellent shelf-life.

These trees bear earlier, extending the harvest season, and produce bigger and tastier fruit that looks better, peels easier and lasts longer on supermarket shelves. It’s no wonder the domestic market has exploded in recent years with consumer confidence in lychees reaching an all-time high.

“It’s gone to show that customers are ready and willing to pay more for special varieties,” Tibby said.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen $20 a kilo which is not uncommon.

“The larger-sized Erdon Lee went to $30 during Christmas week.

“When I was a kid it was grapes and peaches and nectarines but now taste buds of children have driven their parents to buy more lychees.”

In his quest to downsize, Tibby wants to pass on what he has learned. He recently sold off two 45-acre blocks to two young growers – one of whom is looking to put in between 5000-7000 trees of the new varieties.

He believes it’s an exciting and optimistic time to be in the orchard business with industry on the verge of another export boost.

“Lychees going into China have more than doubled,” he said. “And we’ve got some new potential markets in America.

This year it looks as though there’ll be between 50 and 80 tonnes going, compared to last year’s three to five tonnes.”

It just might be the roaring 20s for the lychee industry after all.

Written by Sam Allen-Ankins
Photography by Commercial and Portrait photographer Jim Cullen

Rainbow Orchard is featured in the March / April 2020 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.