Australian Subtropical Coffee Association on Australia’s uprising

ASTCA’s David Peasley on how the Australian coffee industry was reborn with the advent of machine harvesting.
Australian Subtropical Coffee Association

One of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of Australia’s coffee producing community was the invention of the mechanical harvester. The first successful coffee harvesting machine was built in Brazil in 1979. It was a game changer. It helped remove the biggest impediment to the development of the Australian coffee industry – our high labour costs. 

David Peasley of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association

The frosts in the southern Brazil state of São Paulo devastated the coffee industry in 1975, forcing growers to move north into Minas Gerais. Without an adequate labour force, there was an urgent need to develop a mechanical harvester. Along came British engineer Roy Scudder who had built a Riberry harvester in Europe. A US-based agricultural machinery firm FMC commissioned Roy to build a coffee harvester in Brazil as soon as possible. His first tractor-drawn trailing harvester, the Cocco Conquistador, revolutionised coffee growing in many countries.

By the early 1980s, the local coffee-growing pioneers of north Queensland, who came from Papua New Guinea and South Africa, introduced an FMC self-propelled harvester. The QLD Department of Primary Industries’ research station at Kamerunga, north of Cairns, became the arboretum (genetic resource) for coffee varieties from around the world, with researcher Ted Winston playing a leading role in assisting the development of the new industry. 

Interest from the north coast of New South Wales followed and field trials began in 1986 in five locations on the far North Coast. One early pioneer was Ian Downs, who had experience in the coffee industry in PNG and had settled in the Tweed Valley. He saw the potential for coffee as a new industry.

Such was the interest in the potential for the local coffee industry to replace some of the large quantities of coffee product imported into Australia that the Australian Special Rural Research Council called for expressions of interest in establishing an Australian coffee industry in 1987. 

Development of a local coffee industry was seen as an opportunity to reduce Australia’s reliance on imports. A research and development workshop was held on the Gold Coast in 1988 and a research and development fund of $250,000 per year for three years was allocated to research suitable coffee varieties for both north QLD and north NSW.

Under the National Coffee Project, an enthusiastic team of researchers from QLD Department of Primary Industries and NSW Department of Agriculture conducted intensive field research over five years culminating in the production of the 1995 Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation publication Coffee Growing in Australia – a Machine Harvesting Perspective. 

With the pioneering spirit of farmers like John Zentveld and the dynamic duo of Joy Phelps and Doan Dibden in northern NSW, the Jacques Brothers, Ben Colbran, and Ian Maclaughlin in north QLD, the Australian coffee industry was reborn based on the tropical areas of Atherton Tablelands, northern QLD, and the subtropical north coast of NSW and southeast QLD. 

Renowned Italian espresso scientist Dr Ernesto Illy visited John and June Zentveld’s plantation in the Byron Bay hinterland in October 1997 with his Brazil-based agronomist. They advised local growers of the value of saving coffee cherries which ripen and dry on the tree to produce richer, full bodied, lower acid coffee blends that were more suitable to the espresso and milk coffee market.

Producing coffee is one thing, and marketing is another. A coffee marketing summit was organised in 1990 in the Tweed Valley to see if there really was a viable future for the coffee produced in northern NSW. It was attended by the major coffee merchants, marketers, processors, growers, researchers, and the media, and met with a positive response. The race was now on to grow high quality coffee commercially again after almost 100 years since its demise. 

Read part I here.

Stay tuned for part III on Australia’s coffee growing history in the February 2019 edition.