ASTCA’s leading legacies

The Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers Association salutes two trailblazers of the local coffee growing community who dedicated their lives to encouraging quality over quantity.

Last year saw the passing of two stalwarts of the Australian subtropical coffee industry: Joan Dibden and John Zentveld. Each, in their own way, contributed to the establishment, development, and expansion of the coffee-growing industry in the Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales. We, as an industry, have benefited from the sound groundwork these modern-day pioneers put in place, and will do so for years to come.

Joan Dibden
(24.9.1933 – 13.9.2018) 

Joan and her partner Joy Phelps retired from their pathology and nursing careers respectively to take up the challenge of rekindling a local coffee industry that had folded some 60 years earlier. They established their Wombah Coffee Plantation near Iluka in 1982. They used seed from existing coffee trees in the area that were descendants of original coffee trees planted by Joan’s ancestor, John Bale, at Woolbin Island on the Clarence River near Wombah in the 1890s. Before long they had grown the plantation to its capacity of 1100 trees. Their original intention was to produce just enough coffee to use themselves but by 1992, production exceeded their demand, and they sold their excess green beans to the Sydney market.

Joan and Joy encouraged other locals in the Richmond Valley to get into coffee growing and for a small fee, they processed the coffee, and roasted their harvests. Joan and Joy insisted that all coffee they processed was to be handpicked and sun-dried, and advised prospective growers never to plant more trees than they could cope with because of the high cost involved in hand harvesting.

Once the roastery and café were established in the 1990s, they had established the first ‘crop to cup’ coffee enterprise in Australia – a path that others were to follow. 

John Zentveld
(27.6.32 – 17.3.2019)

When Phytophthora fungus devastated John’s avocado plantation in the late 1980s, he looked for a replacement crop to grow on his Newrybar property. David Peasley from the NSW Agriculture’s Tropical Research Centre at Alstonville encouraged John to grow coffee. 

It was known historically that the Northern Rivers Area was perfect for growing coffee. However, the high cost of labour caused the industry to die by the early 20th century. John’s interest was stimulated by the development of a mechanical harvester, which at the time cost 60 cents per kilogram against $6 per kilogram for hand harvesting. 

John was also an enthusiastic participant in the varietals trials to select the best coffee to grow in the Northern Rivers region, a project undertaken by the NSW Department of Primary Industries. John started off planting two acres with several of the variety finalists. 

When the trees were three years old, with the financial backing of the government, a harvester was brought down from the manufacturer in Bundaberg for trials. The result was so good John decided to continue planting out the whole property with 33,000 K7 varietal coffee trees, and thus became the first commercial-sized coffee grower in subtropical Australia. 

John will be remembered for his tenacity to gain distribution rights for coffee processing equipment in the Pacific Rim, and initiate the manufacture of small coffee pulpers for small landholder coffee producers, which are now sold in Australia and across the Pacific.

The Australian subtropical coffee industry owes a great debt to the vision, initiative, hard work, and success of Joan and John and their respective partners. They helped establish and grow an industry in the Australian subtropics that produces coffee comparable to some of the best and more established growing regions of the world. 

This article was written by Jos Weber of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers Association.

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