Queensland’s Douglas family has turned a clump of wild lime trees in the paddock into an international success story that now surpasses their cattle operation.

Story By Sally Nicol

Jock and Mina Douglas of the Roma district, 479 kilometres west of Brisbane, have taken the Australian desert lime and transformed the native fruit into an international family business. Hailing from a pioneering family in south-east Queensland, Jock is a proud fourth-generation cattleman. In 1975, when he moved his wife and four daughters to “Wyoming” in the fertile Mt Abundance district, he noticed the large clumps of wild lime trees growing on the property’s fringes. Within 10 years he’d replaced the cows with 64 kilometres of neat lime-tree rows.

Mina began using the fruit in recipes at first, but it would be another 20 years before the Douglas family considered its commercial value. A man of the land, Jock first heard about the market for desert limes through contacts at Landcare. So, in the mid-1990s, armed with buckets and a willing force of friends and family, the newly created company Australian Desert Limes began hand-picking the fruit growing in its paddocks.

“We picked seven tonnes by hand in our second year,” Jock says. Those early seasons were used to fine-tune the process of picking and delivering the fruit. Jock mentions that handling the limes is where people often get it wrong. “You can’t send them to market like a normal citrus fruit,” he says. “These little characters compost really easily. They’re just like lawn clippings when you put a whole bunch of them together.”

The limes are put in the coldroom hours after picking. The following day they are graded, packed and frozen. Mina says that one of the attributes of the fruit is that it can be frozen and later thawed without losing any of its flavour or presentation. That first batch of hand-picked, frozen product went to Melbourne to fill a major manufacturing order. “Back then, the limes were worth $7 a kilo,” Jock says. “It has just about doubled since then.”

Mina laughs as she remembers that harvest. It’s what led them into their current predicament. “Someone said to us that we had the biggest and best limes anyone had ever supplied to them, and that if anyone was going to propagate these things it should be us, so why didn’t we?” Jock brought in contract grafters and out of the thousands of wild trees on the property, they proceeded to select cuttings from only the best five. He explains that in native trees, the ability to fruit and the size of that fruit varies dramatically.

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009