The perfect brew

The Skybury farms plantation

Although there are no confirmed facts about when – or even where – coffee was first discovered, we do know that coffee cultivation was taking place on the Arabian Peninsula by the 15th century. By the 16th century, this beloved beverage was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Here Down Under, it’s estimated that we consume an average of 1.91kg of coffee per person, per year.

Baking Business sat down with Candy Mclaughlin from Skybury Farms to chat about what it takes to run a coffee plantation.

Skybury Coffee was started in 1987 and is the country’s first commercial coffee plantation. Why did you decide to take this major step?
Ian and Marion purchased the property and knew very little about growing coffee, or for that matter farming. It was the view and the climate that had them falling in love with the region [near Mareeba, Queensland] and the farm.

They have worked hard over the years to cement the Australian coffee industry on the world coffee stage and, now with the increase in world coffee prices, the domestic market is starting to open up to Australian farmers as well.

A man in a grey Skybury Farms shirt, with grey hair and a short beard, holds a spoon over a white bowl. In front of him are five white bowls all full of liquid.

Examining the coffee

What did establishing the coffee plantation involve?
The farm was only a small operation when Ian and Marion purchased it in 1987 and, since then, the Maclaughlin family have been able to expand and purchase several neighbouring farms and expand the coffee footprint as well as diversifying into the tropical fruit line with red papaya.

The main investment with coffee is the processing equipment, and getting the red cherries from the tree into a cup is quite a process!

How long did it take to establish the plantation?
An average coffee plantation can take five years to fully establish from the time of planting to when you have your first commercial coffee crop that will start to pay back on the investment.

What was the initial response to your business?
We have had the support of the international green coffee market for more than 30 years, selling into Europe and Japan annually and the domestic market has been supporting Skybury for just as long.

For us it was the establishment of a dedicated tourism facility on the farm in 2004 that opened our doors to new markets and people looking to support Australian farmers. The visitor centre is open to the public five-days-a-week and its intention is to allow our guests to get interactive with our staff and learn about coffee and papaya.

How has the business grown in the intervening years?
We have expanded into papaya, value adding, and a joint venture in Brisbane with a traditional fruit wholesale agent.

This collaboration has allowed us to have an insight into our sales channel and be able to talk with our consumers directly. The value add is an exciting and more recent arm to the business with the family looking at ways to turn waste product into a saleable commodity.

We have partners with a number of local businesses to produce a rage of high end products.

Red coffee cherries on the plant at Skybury Farms

Coffee cherries

What’s your business ethos?

In 2002 Skybury assisted the Department of Primary Industries in writing the QA Manual for Australian Coffee.

In addition to the QA Manual, we are  accredited by “Fair Farms” (similar to Sedex) and Fresh Care. Our farming practices are environmentally sustainable, carbon levels in our farmed soils are significantly higher than when we started farming in 1987. High levels of carbon make good financial sense as carbon retains moisture and nutrients, discouraging certain pests and diseases.

Skybury’s on-farm practices include water conservation, renewable power, erosion control, integrated pest management, carbon sequestration and dual cropping.

Skybury’s research team have developed protocols for multiplication, breeding and disease resistance. We are constantly looking for improvements in the taste profile of our coffee.

Skybury Farms continues to sustain and play a major role in our local community in Mareeba and the surrounding district. We strive to be employers of choice and employ around 110 people from 17 nationalities.

We provide pathways to grow within Skybury and training and education to excel in other businesses.

What does your day-to-day work look like?
I meet my team at 6.20am and get them rolling for the day, I look after the picking and packing of the papaya and my brother looks after the farming elements like water, fertilizer and plant breeding. The coffee is very low maintenance outside of harvesting season which is June/July.

I will travel around the farm talking to the various teams from the nursery to the café and then back down to the packing shed.

We have 100 staff that make up team Skybury.

A man with blond hair and a blue shirt stands over a mill. Coffee beans are pouring into it.

Processing at Skybury Farms

Did you have any challenges to overcome in setting up both the plantation and the business?
I think that the modern farm is a business, and this is an essential element to our success to date.

You have to be able to farm and sell your product and the bigger you get the more skills that are required.

I think that agriculture is one of the most exciting sectors to be in as there are literally no limits. Technology is advancing at a huge rate, the demand for coffee is not decreasing and people are far more aware of what they are consuming and where it is grown than ever before.

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