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An Interesting Love Story Growing For Nearly 100 Years – Citrus Orchard

ABC Wide Bay / By Brad Marsellos  2021

Nearly 100 years ago, an orange tree was planted on the banks of the Burnett River near Gayndah in south-east Queensland that would grow into a story of love. 

Walter Benham planted that tree in 1924, and four generations later the legacy continues with a family partnership and around 70,000 citrus trees.

Rachael Benham started making citrus products after advice from her grandma. (ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

Like something from the pages of a Spanish romance novel, rolling plains filled with fruit-heavy trees and the occasional rocky outcrop, the Beyenda Citrus farm remains home to the Benham family.

The family now grows grapefruit, lemons, mandarins as well oranges for export and the Australian market on the picturesque property.

Rachael Benham was not born a citrus farmer like her husband and fourth-generation grower, Matt. She grew up on a western Queensland livestock farm.

The couple met at university and Ms Benham went from animal science to living on an orchard. 

Eleven years and two children later, Ms Benham still feels she has a lot to learn from the family with "orange juice flowing in their veins".

"Trees are a little different, they don't move and they don't kick, run away or need mustering," she says.

"It's been a steep learning curve as in I knew nothing about citrus and I still feel a long way behind my husband and his parents. I just try and soak up everything from them.

"But I'm on the land and that's where I want to be."

Winter is one of the busiest times at the orchard. 

You stroll from the peaceful calm of kangaroos lounging among citrus trees to the industrial organised chaos of the packing shed.

The job diversity of farming is one of the aspects Matt Benham loves about being a producer. 

The work is relentless and obstacles can prove challenging but Mr Benham loves being a "citrus man".

"This year we had our labour shortages," he says.

"You are working with Mother Nature, tractors breaking down at crucial times, through to low prices like we have just seen.

But for all the adversity, Mr Benham still believes the love of the land and food production could be the career his two young daughters Ayla, five, and Zoey, two, choose and feels the citrus also is running through their veins.

"I feel the stigma of 'just being farmer' has changed, you are not just a farmer," he said.

"You're a business person, a marketer, you look at soil health, it's more of a career-based thing now.

"I hope the wider population that goes and buys their mandarins from Woolies thinks 'Oh, a farmer did that' and thinks 'But what is a farmer?'"

Matt and Rachael work with Matt's parents Averial and Murray and feel their daughters Ayla and Zoey may follow in their footsteps.
(Supplied: Benham family)

Squeezing into a citrus family

When Ms Benham's family found out she was switching to citrus from livestock they were full of support and advice including the suggestion to start making marmalade.

"When I moved here my Grandma said 'You need to make marmalade'," she says.

"I had no idea how to make marmalade, so she sent me a few recipes and they were disasters but I kept working at it and trying different varieties of fruit from the orchard."

When Ms Benham was finally happy with her marmalade she offered it as a wedding favour when the couple were married. It was a hit and so she also started production of citrus-infused cordials, infused olive oils, and other citrus spreads.

"I'm far behind Matt and his parents with what I know about citrus, but with this I have something of my own," she says. 

While a love of citrus is fairly new to Ms Benham in the 100-year history of the orchard, you can tell the land is in her heart and she also believes her daughters might want to be part of the family tradition.

"They love to come to the shed, go on the tractor, we have to go pick mandies every day," she says.

"I think they will, but it is getting tougher and tougher to be on the land.

"But you do it because you love it."

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