Chris Monsour of Prospect Agriculture with agave plants flourishing on a farm south of Bowen. Photo: Elyse Wurm. INSET: Artist impression of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed
Chris Monsour of Prospect Agriculture with agave plants flourishing on a farm south of Bowen. Photo: Elyse Wurm. INSET: Artist impression of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed

Distillery next step as agave farm goes gangbusters

RIGHT next to the bustling Bruce Highway just south of Bowen, small plants that look a little larger than a household succulent are growing and thriving in the hot Whitsunday sun.

Row upon row of agave plants line the land, with 150,000 now in the ground.

Their growth is exceeding expectations held when planting began in February.

The agave plants will eventually become a uniquely Australian spirit, modelled on tequila in Mexico, and will be distilled on the same block of land they were grown on.

Property manager and agricultural scientist Chris Monsour, of Prospect Agriculture in Bowen, was engaged by Melbourne distiller Top Shelf International to set up the agave farm on their behalf.

Now construction on another phase of the project - a distillery - is set to begin in the new year.

 

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DISTILLERY AROUND CORNER

Mr Monsour said the aim was to create a closed-loop system by growing, processing and distilling the agave all on the same block of land, which is situated across the road from the United service station halfway between Proserpine and Bowen.

Possible locations on the property for the distillery are being surveyed.

Artist impressions of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed
Artist impressions of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed

Mr Monsour said one possible location was on a flat paddock right next to the Bruce Highway and it could help draw in tourists from the main thoroughfare.

Artist impressions of the new distillery show a building nestled among agave plants, with the distillery in clear view of people gathering in the main building.

There are also plans to create a function centre and tourism centre in the same complex.

"The whole idea is to have walks through the crops and the creeks, which look beautiful when they're flowing," Mr Monsour said.

"They (Top Shelf) realise it's not only a great place to grow agave, with the islands and the Whitsundays brand, they can piggyback off it.

"It's something that's different and they're hoping to attract 40,000 people to drop in a year."

Mr Monsour said the plan was to show people how the agave was being grown and create an experience.

"Some might want a drink, others might want to see the growing process," he said.

Artist impressions of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed
Artist impressions of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed

WHAT AUSTRALIAN TEQUILA WILL BE LIKE

While the agave spirit made on the farm can't be called tequila, as it wasn't produced in Mexico, the plan is to create a refined product that can be sipped like a whiskey.

Mr Monsour said much like wine, different soil types could influence the flavours in the spirit.

"There's a whole lot of opportunities to produce premium products," he said.

"This will be modern and distinctly Australian, not mimicking Mexico."

Mr Monsour said it was not about shooting the drink down the hatch, but enjoying the flavours it offered.

"In the 60s and 70s people drank (wine) from a cask, but now a lot of people are big on different varieties and the way it's produced," he said.

"I reckon it's great that this area has something that's very unique."

The floor plan of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed
The floor plan of a new distillery and tourist centre set to be built on an agave farm south of Bowen. Photo: Contributed

HOW AGAVE GROWING IS PROGRESSING

Mr Monsour said the farm south of Bowen chosen to house the agave plants was selected because the conditions were basically a "carbon copy" of those found in the town of Tequila in Mexico - home of the beloved spirit of the same name.

Since planting began earlier in the year, Mr Monsour said the team was happy with their progress as it's the first time agave had been grown on an industrial scale in Australia.

"With the early plants the growing has been impressive considering the lack of water," Mr Monsour said.

"We're very pleased with how much they have grown, they've probably exceeded my expectations.

"The whole idea with developing this system is seeing what are the things we can do to improve soil health and look after the environment better, see how things are going to run."

The farm is using irrigation, fertilisers and a variety of high-tech equipment to help nurture the plants, including sensors to monitor water levels during irrigation.

"We can watch them drinking," Mr Monsour said.

"We can tailor the amount of water and the timing so we're not wasting water."

Agave bulbs, known as
Agave bulbs, known as "pups", ready to be planted on a farm south of Bowen. Photo: Elyse Wurm

Cover cropping will be used to help suppress weeds and a drone is the next item on the to-buy list to calculate the biomass under each plant.

Mr Monsour said by 2023 the first plants placed in the soil would be about 2m tall with a large stem and would be ready for harvesting.

The plan is to harvest the plant, with the stem holding the valuable sugar needed to make the Australian tequila, and put it through a chipper onsite before taking it to the distillery.

There are already 150,000 plants in the ground, but the aim is to have one million bulbs planted across the more than 400-hectare property over the next four years.

Whitsunday Regional Council Division 6 councillor Mike Brunker, Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox, Ausagave CEO Don Chambers and principal consultant at Prospect Agriculture Chris Monsour posing with a newly planted agave plant in February.
Whitsunday Regional Council Division 6 councillor Mike Brunker, Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox, Ausagave CEO Don Chambers and principal consultant at Prospect Agriculture Chris Monsour posing with a newly planted agave plant in February.

BENEFITS BEYOND THE BAR

Mr Monsour said growing agave had benefits beyond the beverage industry as there were different ways parts of the plant could be used.

He said the sugar that came from agave plants could also be used in health foods and there were compounds in the plant that could be used in pharmaceuticals and as a fire retardant.

Mr Monsour said leaves could also be used as silage to feed cattle.

"It should mean every bit of the plant can be used," he said.

Mr Monsour said the suitability of the plant to the conditions in Bowen may mean others could benefit from growing the plant on their own land to complement their other operations.

"It can handle long periods of drought, you can use it to help feed cattle, you might want to harvest it and turn it into ethanol," he said.

"It just gives people who have got marginal land and tough climate the ability to grow something that can handle that."


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