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Australia’s Perfect Combination
By Laurie Mills

Coffee and sugar are a good combination, and one that is now catching on in northern Queensland, Australia, in a novel way.

As cane prices plunged to rock bottom in the early years of the 21st century, Peter Phillips, a cane grower from the town of Proserpine, decided to add a new twist on this blend when he looked at diversifying. It was a move he made after several long months of research, back in the late 1990s, all the while planting trial crops and propagating seedlings to see how a crop would fare under local conditions. “Sugar might be going well now, but two years ago we were going broke and saw diversification as part of the answer.”

In world terms, Phillips has what is considered a vast holding, but among other Queenslanders this number is not so big. His property is roughly 1500–km north of the state capital, Brisbane, which in turn is 1000-km from Sydney, and 30-km from the Whitsunday Coast, where the beauty of the coastal town, Airlie Beach, and the nearby offshore islands have made it a playground for millions of tourists each year.

From James Cook to Cup
“Coffee was actually one of the first crops grown up here in the Whitsunday region, when the first settlers arrived,” Phillips said. Lieutenant James Cook was the first European sailor to discover the region back in the 1770s, but sugar became the boom crop after earlier experiments near Brisbane succeeded and land was cleared progressively north, until it arrived in the Mackay – Whitsunday district - eventually finishing another 2000-km past Cairns. Then, with most of those early farmers preferring tea, coffee – almost – fell off the map. However, according to Phillips “some kept a few plants with them, to ensure they wouldn’t have to break their coffee habit.” He continued, “It was successful from a production point of view and popular with the few Europeans who settled the region and traditionally didn’t like tea, which is more of a British beverage, preferred by the English farmers.

“The produce of those first coffee crops was actually sent over to London for a turn-of-the-century trade exhibition, where it was well received, but production apparently died out as there wasn’t much of a market. Everyone drank tea back then, coffee – mixed with chicory – had limited acceptance.” Phillips’ research involved, amongst others, visiting coffee plantations on the Hawaiian island of Kona, which is basically the same latitude north, as Proserpine is south and where coffee has supplanted cane as the island’s main crop. Kona’s coffee is known the world over for its quality.

Disproving a Coffee Tradition

The coffee trees and cherries here demonstrate the possibilities of Australian coffees. Despite the concerns regarding the location and climate, coffee in Australia is thriving.
With help from Queensland Department of Primary Industries officials at Mareeba, where coffee growing is reasonably well further to the north, Phillips took the plunge in 1999. He now has 32-ha and 250,000 plants under cultivation on his Proserpine plantation. “The accepted thinking in the industry is that coffee grows better on elevated land on mountain ranges, but that didn’t prove to be the case here.” According to Phillips, the results from the original crop demonstrated that coffee could be a success in the valley regions. “It had been accepted wisdom that coffee is a high-altitude crop, but it actually thrives here on the lowlands,” he said.

The Whitsundays region, is believed that the climate is one of the best in the world to grow top-quality coffee. “Growing on flat land is also a bonus,” Phillips continued, “since cropping on hillsides can be a problem when using a mechanical harvester. Our finer soils give us another advantage and Hawaiian growers, with their abrasive volcanic soils, are amazed at the extra life we get out of our slashing machines when we chip out the weeds under trees.”

Although growing and harvesting has been a long learning process for this region, Phillips was able to create his own approach and practices. “We had to develop our own methods of growing the crop. I spent hundreds of hours on the Internet and reading books. Trial and error showed us the best way, and of course we had plenty of help from DPI Mareeba. We actually used a modified tomato planter from Bowen to get the block up and running.” The company also imported harvesting machinery from Brazil and India, which Phillips stated has assisted in the development and progress on their current roasted blends, which he says are doing quite well. “We decided to go with the premium strain, Café Arabica over Café Robusta, which supplies most of the world’s instant coffee.”

Australia’s Future

Despite the difference in elevation, Australia was able to harvest some beautiful coffee cherries, as shown above.
The huge developing coffee culture, particularly in Australia’s capital cities, has been a bonus in the marketplace although most sales are confined to surrounding region at present. Phillips currently has a nursery of about 20,000 plants. Although the plants take six years to mature and can be cropped after four years, they have a lifespan of about 50 years, and reach a height of about four metres. “Then you’ve got to stump the trees and new plants will shoot from the roots. However, it takes another three years before they can be harvested,” Phillips said. “They are ideal to grow between rows of cane or as a stand-alone crop. They only need drip irrigation, so water use is less than cane, and because the plant has no natural enemies in Australia, we don’t have to spend money on pesticides, which can be a major expense in traditional coffee-growing countries.”

This year, the farm will produce about 40 tons of coffee against just 18 from their first crop last year. Projected sales indicate those seedlings in the nursery will soon be in the ground as demand increases, and since local supermarkets and resorts stock Phillips’ Whitsunday Gold blend, he plans on opening a roadside Coffee Information Centre (similar to the Dole Plantation in Hawaii) to push the brand further into connoisseurs’ consciences.

“Most of the coffee we get here in Australia is at least two years old and stale by the time we drink it. This is after being picked overseas, shipped away, then blended and shipped here. By growing our coffee in Australia, our customers are drinking it in a couple of weeks instead of several years after it is harvested.”

With coffee serving as the second highest-traded commodity in the world after oil, and sugar at roughly eight times the return, Phillips feels his decision to switch has been vindicated. “I’d like to see the sugar price keep going higher, but at the moment we’re doing all right with the coffee. Our only problem at the moment is we can’t grow enough!” he said.

Laurie Mills is a journalist with a career stretching back over 30 years. She has spent most of her career working for newspapers, predominantly in Victoria and Queensland, and various magazines. During the past few years, Mills has written stories focusing on the sugar industry, and quite recently has ventured into coffee, due to its rarity in Australia.


Tea & Coffee - June, 2007
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