Outback origin: The growing demand for Australian grown coffee

Australian grown coffee

Off the back of a challenging year for the Australian coffee industry, demand for locally grown coffee has never been higher. BeanScene speaks to Australian farmers on how they’re adding value and why the industry is screaming out for new growers.

Australian coffee farming has never experienced consumer attention more than it has in the past 12 months. Call it a rise in agritourism, food tourism, the paddock to plate or crop to cup movement, whatever the motive, Australian consumers are seeking out single origin Australian grown coffee in droves. 

“While the country was forced into lockdown with an increased volume of people working from home, it gave people the chance to think about food security and where their food comes from. They looked into their backyard, did a turnaround, and are craving Australian coffee,” says Rebecca Zentveld of Zentveld’s Coffee in Newrybar, New South Wales.

Zentveld’s Coffee has experienced “exponential demand” from the home market, mailing out countless orders of one to two kilograms of roasted coffee each week. 

“People genuinely say, ‘finally, we’ve found Australian grown coffee. We didn’t know it existed but now that we do, and as long as it tastes good, we’ll be back’. We’ve grown our repeat orders from our new coffee friends, and you see them experimenting and trying different roast profiles across our range,” Rebecca says.

Australian farmer Jos Webber of Kahawa Estate in Australia’s Byron Bay hinterland has also experienced incredible demand for his home grown and roasted coffee, and has documented online customer feedback from December 2020 to February 2021. 

That feedback includes customers thanking him for helping them get through the last stages of lockdown, others wanting to support local businesses, some wanting to fill Christmas stockings with Australian made and owned produce, many “keen to try a good Aussie brew”, and most praising a simple Google search of “Australian grown coffee” that led to his website. 

“Orders have been heart-warming,” Jos says. “Thanks to COVID and the many people in lockdown, people dusted off old coffee machines, some bought them new, and we watched our online sales go up and up.”

When Jos started roasting in 2009, he says 90 per cent of sales were for his lighter roasted coffee for drip and filter methods. Now, 90 to 95 per cent of orders are for his medium to dark roasted espresso whole beans.

“I have just enough stock to get through the year, and that includes taking stock from nearby farms. Sales are up 50 per cent on 2019,” Jos says. “The key question, however, is can we sustain this growth? I just wish we had more growers in the market, which we wouldn’t see as competition, just adding to the critical mass that we need.”

Currently, the exact number of coffee farms, and their productive tree numbers in the Northern Rivers are unknown, but according to the Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers Association 2020 report and in discussions with the Association President, it is estimated that the industry has shrunk considerably since 2012 when there were an estimated 523,100 coffee producing trees. 

This shrinkage has come about as farmers decide against continuing to grow coffee when they experience setbacks. Some find the going tough as they get older and others have sold as the land value exceeded the income from coffee growing.

Jos says unfortunately, new and existing coffee growers are competing with those wishing to live on the land, with the region experiencing a steep increase of residents from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne seeking a sea change in the Byron Bay hinterland.

“The worry is that people are buying up the valuable coffee growing land and not utilising it, opting for a view and not a profession in farming. Eighteen years ago, those that moved up here looked around to see what they could grow, from macadamias to avocados to stone fruits. They realised they needed pesticides to avoid disease and fruit fly, but none were needed to grow coffee because there are no pests or diseases [in this country]. It’s such a healthy, environmentally friendly crop,” Jos says. 

“Coffee is seasonal. It flowers once a year, and allows three to four months of downtime in winter for maintenance until things pick up from September to December with harvest then January to March for plantation maintenance and fertilising. You can have a balance of lifestyle, you can enjoy the challenges of farming, and watch the rewards of growing your own produce and sharing it. There’s a good story to tell in coffee farming, we just need more landholders to come in and give it a go.”

There are currently only small sections of Australian land ripe for coffee farming, including across subtropical NSW and Queensland. If climate change was to be persistent and result in more frequent, warmer weather, Zentveld’s Rebecca predicts a widening of potential coffee growing land along the cooler south coast, in suitable pockets of rich soil that may become frost free. 

“It’d be such a shame if we don’t realise our potential and use our best, most fertile land to grow food. I really think we have a responsibility to be land custodians. As coffee growers in the Byron hinterland, we are looking after our soils, waterways and creating wildlife corridors, regenerating rainforests along with growing a food crop that is naturally spray free, such as coffee. But with the appeal of living in the hinterland, most new landowners are ‘growing a house’ rather than food,” she says. “We want to welcome landowners to become growers and give them the confidence in production methods to start their own coffee growing journey. We are happy to share how they can be ecologically thoughtful and profitable farmers.”

Coffee growing, however, is not without its challenges. It’s a profession that requires resilience to anticipate challenges and respond, whether by adaptation or transformation. Challenges come in the form of climate change leading to reduced rainfall and a higher risk of disease in the trees and long-term problems with the K7 cultivar, such as pruning and replacement requirements. 

In her own academic studies, Zeta Grealy of Wirui Estate looked at how coffee farmers in the Northern Rivers region perceive resilience as well as factors that enhance that resilience. She found most farmers to be very aware of the challenges they face, and all displayed resilience traits that have allowed them to respond. 

“This is a group of people with varied professional backgrounds and they bring to coffee growing those skills from their previous professions, strong leadership and management, goal-centred, forward thinking ideas and problem-solving abilities. These skills have built the necessary adaptive abilities and led to ideas for innovation and diversification on their farms,” Zeta says. 

However, like every pursuit, there is always scope to improve and help the industry. Zeta says more communication and greater industry cohesion could help strengthen the coffee growing community and lead to further empowerment through collective action and help retain existing growers.

“The industry can also be strengthened by attracting more contractors to the industry. [In 2020] we lost the only mobile coffee harvester available in the region. Currently, there is no service available for small producers [less than 20,000 trees] to mechanically harvest their crop. This in addition to a processing service is just one area that would allow new growers to the industry reduce their set-up costs,” she says.

Zeta adds that the expertise of coffee traders and roasters could also be harnessed to develop a greater awareness of Australian grown coffee and boost the level of excellence required to produce a competitive green bean. 

Candy Maclaughlin, General Manager of Skybury Coffee in Mareeba, QLD, says a more collective approach to the industry would help entice new growers to look past the expenses involved. 

“Here in Queensland, there’s no shortage of land, just people thinking about how to get the biggest return for their patch of dirt. The difference between growing avocado and coffee is the level of infrastructure needed. With avocado farming, you literally just need a packing shed. With coffee, you need a mechanical harvester, wet processing plant, dry processing plant, and then you need to access your market,” she says. “We need to choose to work together, like a cooperative. Someone needs to start a central processing plant, a central wet mill, and a central dry mill. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Many farmers are, however, finding inventive ways to add value to their farming practices and connect their product to consumers. 

At Zentveld’s Coffee, Rebecca renovated in the quieter period of April to May 2020 to include a coffee house with the opportunity for guests to enjoy a barista-made coffee on the veranda overlooking the coffee plantation.

At Skybury, Candy has partnered with a local distillery to produce a coffee liqueur and taken a zero-waste approach by using spent coffee grounds to create a body scrub and cosmetic facial oil using green or roasted coffee, which she hopes to launch in the coming months. 

“Green coffee has great protective properties for your skin. I’ve been lucky enough to wear it for the last six months in trials, and I love it. It’s 100 per cent natural green coffee oil, grown and made in Australian,” she says. “There’s still more Australian coffee growers can do [to value add]. We let our cherry skin go to waste and its high in antioxidants with plenty of opportunities for use.”

Last year, Skybury also experienced its highest number of visitors to the farm and on-site café in seven years, a result of more Queenslanders or “grey nomads” looking to explore their own backyard. 

“We’ve been trying for a long time to get more interest in the Australian market. We’ve always great interest from the international perspective – half of what we grow every year goes overseas [to Japan, Germany and Spain]. Our green bean sales almost compare to our domestic wholesale roast coffee. We sold our entire overseas allocation in two weeks this year,” Candy says. “For less work I could sell all my coffee overseas at a really good price, but we want the Australian market to recognise that our coffee does stack up, and now we’re finally seeing that interest.”  

At Wirui Estate in Carool, Zeta has increased her farm income with the same base product through the introduction of a farm stay experience.

Three years ago, Zeta sold the large house on her land with some of her coffee trees in an effort to downsize and reduce the workload of the farm as she and husband Marc got older.

“After roasting coffee for 20 years I decided I needed a change. The first move was to sell green bean as a specialty coffee instead of roasted bean. In addition, we wanted to supplement our farm income to ensure we were covering all the costs of running the farm,” Zeta says. “The Tweed Shire does not allow the subdivision of properties below a certain size and also does not permit second dwellings for rental or family residences. However, they do allow farm stay development where an established farm is shown to provide an educational potential.”

As a result, Zeta delved deeper into the value of agritourism as a means of maximising the potential of her product. In 2020, she launched a farm stay as an extension of that philosophy, inviting visitors to live on the land without any requirements to work. The house looks across the plantation and visitors are able to walk through the trees throughout the property. 

“Staying here is a snapshot of what is happening [to] the trees at that time. This all fits into an authentic, tourism experience,” Zeta says.

Agronomist David Peasley of Farrants Hill in Northern NSW has also turned his farm into an AirBnB experience, inviting guests to see how coffee is grown, processed and roasted before they enjoy an espresso from the coffee beans grown on the land before them. 

“Each morning my wife Suzanne and I enjoy a steady stream of visitors arriving [at the farm] to share a brew. There is a catch, however, you must be involved in the pick in order to secure a regular seat at the table, or bring some of your own produce in exchange,” he says.

He picks his coffee cherries in late Autumn until mid-spring. David says the trick to good picking is quite simple, “pick only fully red cherry and no green”. 

For more than 30 years, David has grown and produced his own coffee. He grows the K7 variety, which originated in Kenya. It yields heavily under the sub-tropical conditions and accounts for 90 per cent of the coffee grown in sub-tropical Australia. 

“On our Farrants Hill property we have 100 trees with some grown amongst the banana plantation, others in full shade and others in full sun. The choice of different growing micro-environments was deliberate in order to experiment with yield and productivity. I have found bananas and coffee to be good companion crops as they protect each other from high wind, and it is an efficient use of a space,” David says.

He hopes that with the burgeoning interest in small-scale growing across Australia since the COVID-19 outbreak, it may bring an array of new flavours to the market as new producers begin to tweak processes to perfect a cup that suits their palate. 

What currently makes the Australian hinterland such an ideal area for coffee production is the naturally cooler climate that brings with a longer ripening season and sweetness within the fruit, flavour characteristics commonly seen in other cooler climate regions that grow grapes.

“In coffee, typically the higher you go, the cooler the microclimate, the better quality of the soil, but we’re getting that at low level altitude. We’ve had different agronomists say we’re growing coffee at around 700 feet, but it’s like we we’re 1800 metres altitude,” Zentveld’s Rebecca says. “We are the only subtropical land growing coffee below the tropic zone. We’re not in the so-called coffee belt but what makes our coffee quality unique is the microclimate: the red soil, the consistent rainfall and the cooler climate, which we’ve enjoyed in the last six months thanks to the La Niña effect.” 

To help ensure the livelihood of crops for the future, Australia is one of 22 countries in the World Coffee Research International Multilocation Variety Trial to assess the viability of new hybrid varietals. Southern Cross University in Northern New South Wales has planted the crops in the subtropical coffee growing region, but the project is still two years out from testing. It is hoped the trial will produce a varietal that grows less vigorously, is of short stature, rust and berry borer resistant, and retains cup quality. Farmers in the Northern Rivers region are waiting patiently for the new varietals to become available. They hope it’s the next phase in rejuvenating the industry and the added incentive prospective farmers need to sustain a future in coffee production. 

“I really do think it’s an exciting industry to be in,” Rebecca says. “To offer that full experience of crop to cup and explore the many areas you can take your passion for coffee, is just limitless.” 

This article appears in the April 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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