New varieties to boost Australian coffee industry

Six new coffee varieties suited to subtropical growing conditions in Australia will be imported from Colombia and Brazil in a bid to stimulate the local industry.

The varieties will be trialled following negotiations between Australian, Colombian and Brazilian coffee industry officials.

“We can deliver freshness to the local market that can’t be matched by anything that’s arrived from half-way across the world,” said David Peasley of Peasley Horticultural Services.

According to statistics published on the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s (RIRDC), Australia imports about 67,000 tonnes of coffee, and produces just over 1000 tonnes domestically each year.

David has researched coffee varieties and production systems in subtropical Australia for more than 20 years. He says Australian coffee is distributed evenly among local and international markets, where it enjoys a strong reputation for quality, consistency and flavour.

“We don’t have a problem with the major coffee disease – coffee leaf rust or coffee berry borer disease, so we don’t need to spray our plantations with pesticides like in other parts of the world,” he says. “This means that our coffee contains lower levels of caffeine, which forms part of the plants’ natural defence against pests, and we can produce a delicious cup with complex flavours and natural sweetness.”

Due to the relatively high-cost of labour in Australia, local coffee producers depend on machine-harvesting in order to compete. The large harvesters straddle a row of coffee plants and shake the ripe cherries free from the branches, using horizontal fibreglass fingers attached to two vertical posts that resemble a drive-through car wash. When the plants become too tall for the harvesters, they must be pruned back, which results in production loss.

RIRDC, in association with Southern Cross University (SCU), recognise diversification will play a vital role in solving these issues, and keeping the Australian industry cost competitive.

David toured a Colombian research facility and breeding program, and visited Brazil to select six varieties that could be grown in Australia and met the requirements of local growers.

Colombia is the third largest coffee exporter in the world, employing 60 leading scientists and 5000 agronomists over eight research stations. David says Colombia hold approximately 1200 different varieties of coffee in their collection.

“In a way, it is fortunate that coffee is quite sensitive to variation in climate, latitude and altitude. I worked with 10 criteria set by the local growers, including drought and rust resistance, a long production life with high bean quality. And of course, it had to be a semi-dwarf variety compatible with machine-harvesting. These criteria helped me to eliminate a large number of unsuitable varieties very quickly,” David said.

Once an agreement is reached between SCU and the Colombian and Brazilian authorities, the chosen varieties will be grown out in quarantine facilities at SCU. After passing quarantine requirements, the seedlings will be planted in a field trial in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

“Initially the negotiations will focus on the sharing of knowledge and research. If these varieties prove successful, then we’ll discuss commercial agreements. For the moment, the likely trade-off means that the Colombian researchers will use the data from these trials to examine the potential impact of climate change in their own country,” David said.

President of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association, Jan Fadelli, hopes that the new varieties will help to attract more growers to the industry.

“Prospective coffee growers have been advised in the past that in nine to 10 years they will probably need to prune, at some cost to their production. Having access to semi-dwarf varieties that do not need regular pruning could be a game-changer for the local industry and bring in new growers. We are fortunate to grow our coffee in the favourable Australian sub-tropical climate, which means we can produce a truly exceptional cup,” she said.

While Jan is hopeful for the future, she remains realistic about the timeframes involved.

“The results of these trials are still at least five years away. It’s a shame these trials won’t help our members looking to plant more trees immediately, however, we must be able to think long-term, as the Colombians are doing,” she said.

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