Whisky, wasabi, saffron and Bobbie Bear lead Tasmania's niche charge

Fri Jul 18, 2014 1:35am EDT
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By Jane Wardell

NABOWLA Australia (Reuters) - Half a dozen older ladies, all kitted out in lilac shirts, chat affably as they rhythmically stuff and sew up cuddly purple-colored bears, cups of tea littering their workspace.

It could easily be a women's club gathering anywhere in middle Australia, but these women are producing a teddy bear that has become one of the most sought after commodities in China.

Bridestowe Lavender in Tasmania is the headquarters of "Bobbie Bear", a lavender and wheat stuffed soft toy that became a craze after sultry actress and model Zhang Xinyu said it was her favorite bedtime companion.

In the year since Zhang's endorsement, sales of the bear - created by the 90-year-old company to use up offcuts of dried lavender - have soared and Chinese tourists have inundated the small farm on the remote northeastern coast of Tasmania to buy from the source.

"We were run off our feet and people were changing clothes in the parking lot because we imposed a limit of one Bobbie per customer," said Bronwyn Bishop, sales and marketing manager at Bridestowe.

Bridestowe's "lilac ladies" pumped out 40,000 bears last year, currently selling for A$89.95 ($84.33) a piece - still well short of a demand that saw some 300,000 counterfeit bears produced elsewhere in Australia and China.

The problem with those copybears was that they couldn't replicate Tasmania's reputation for clean produce. China temporarily banned all imports of the bears after one of the fake bears was found to contain moths and weevils.

Bridestowe Lavender is one of a number of niche producers in Tasmania taking advantage of the export gold star afforded by the state's genetically modified organism free status.   Continued...

A woman sews the back of a "Bobbie Bear", a lavender and wheat stuffed soft toy, at the headquarters of Tasmania's Bridestowe Lavender located near the town of Nabowla, on the outskirts of Launceston June 4, 2014.  REUTERS/David Gray