BeanScene celebrates one of Australia’s longest operating coffee plantations, Skybury Coffee, and discovers how the next generation of MacLaughlin farmers is ready to adapt to the industry’s evolving coffee culture.
When Candy MacLaughlin was just a kid growing up on the family farm near Mareeba, Tropical North Queensland, the fields of coffee trees were her playground and workplace.
“I learned to drive a tractor before I learned to drive a car. Mum and my brothers would run the wet plant, dad would be on the harvester, and I would be hauling the coffee,” Skybury General Manager Candy MacLaughin recalls.
“Mum and dad fell into the coffee industry because of the love of the property rather than what it was growing. It was a real connection to land, and they loved the familiarity of the place, originally coming from South Africa. I think Dad saw the opportunity to grow something that wasn’t necessarily mainstream as well.”
Ian and Marion MacLaughin bought the farm as an established coffee plantation in 1987. They continued harvesting coffee for the next 11 years before diversification with red papaya was essential to retain staff and provide a steady income for the other 10 months of the year coffee wasn’t in production.
Out of the 38 blocks of land on the Skybury farm, 10 are dedicated to coffee, ranging from five to seven hectares each. Bourbon has traditionally been Skybury’s dominant varietal, but the farm is the process of transitioning to Catuai due to Bourbon’s fast-growing nature that results in a “really lanky, skinny tree that gets too big too quickly”.
The first Catuai block was planted in 2022, meaning it won’t be ready for harvest for another three years.
“[Catuai] is a dwarf tree and will suit us better thanks to our dual cropping. We can keep it in the ground longer because it won’t grow to the point where it’s no longer viable to use a machine to harvest it,” Candy says.
“We farm very differently to other farms in Australia, specifically around coffee. We have an approach to being long-term sustainable, and very specific in terms of our land management. We find that by having a coffee crop that is only in the ground for three to four years, allows us to turn that tree back into the soil, which improves our carbon levels. We’re constantly changing the land that’s used for coffee and swapping it out for papaya.”
Ian and Marion adopted the dual cropping method 10 years ago after seeing how well the two crops worked together while on holiday in Brazil.
“Papaya has a lifespan of 18 months so if you plant the two crops together, one after another in a row, by the time the papaya is finished, the coffee trees are two years old and then you get a commercial crop on year three,” Candy says.
The papaya provides the shade that coffee trees thrive underneath. The other bonus of growing the two crops in thesame drill, Candy says, is that only 10 per cent more inputs of fertiliser (copper and caterpillar spray) and water are required. This results in better use of irrigation and not having to turn the soil as often.
“Where possible we’d rather rely on the natural ecosystem so we try to do a limited spray program. We know we’re doing a reasonable job in that space because come harvest time, the amount of insects we shake out of the trees is just incredible. There’s a micro ecosystem that exists within the coffee trees that benefits the soil structure. Because it’s left alone between harvest you get a real build-up of wildlife which is great, and it means you need to spray less [fertiliser],” Candy says.
The Skybury farm does a lot of work around carbon neutrality, which refers to how often soil is turned, and inter-row vegetation. Candy says it’s something Skybury will look at further within the next 12 months and start becoming part of its dialogue with customers.
“It might even be something that influences people’s buying choices as to what plantations they choose to support,” Candy says.
“I’ve also been told that some of the major [food and beverage] retailers are going to start using farm’s [carbon] credits to offset their own credits, so you will be given an advantage if you have that compliance already in place. The major players will ultimately dictate what happens on farm, whether we like it or no. It’s just the reality.”
Skybury embraces as much of the region’s natural resources as possible. It uses solar panels on its pump houses and all major infrastructure to offset electricity costs and implements water conservation, and erosion control.
It has also eliminated coffee waste on the farm by creating a skincare range with green coffee waste product and papaya seeds. The result is a lip balm and coffee seed oil created in collaboration with a local business.
Aside from the farm’s sustainable developments, Candy says Skybury’s biggest evolution has been understanding how to shift from being a large-scale coffee producer to one that does micro lots.
“If you are set up to be a large-scale producer, it’s really hard to go and suddenly become macro, and I’ve done it. I’ve done small runs and worked closely with Oliver James who owns Tattooed Sailor roastery in Cairns,” Candy says. “I have this connection to the industry because I think it is important to understand what roasters and baristas are doing, and what their consumers want.”
While Skybury has the equipment to handle micro lot volumes, Candy is limited by her workload capacity. Instead, if an interested individual were to look into fermentation processes and develop micro lots, they would be welcome to take on that side of production.
In 2022, Candy was involved in a study with the University of New South Wales who were interested in trying to quantify what Australian coffee tastes like. While Candy doubts there is one specific answer, what she did discover through speaking with other producers, is that although there’s a lot of talk about Australian coffee in general, the volume of Australian growers remains the same.
“The number of farmers is not increasing. Those who are coming on board are taking the more macro approach and are quite specialised in terms of their wet processing. They have a huge advantage over us in being able to charge $60 to $100 a kilo, whereas we’re still working on volumes of 40 tonnes,” Candy says.
She notes the Byron Bay region of Australia will struggle with coffee production as land becomes more valuable for housing, and anticipates Queensland will follow suit. What’s exciting is new opportunities to look at viable land for future coffee production, such as that in Western Australia.
For those entering the market, Skybury is happy to share their experience and learnings, and assist in research and development to potentially lead breeding opportunities.
“I think our key role remains around education. How do we continue to educate and promote that the coffee industry is alive and well in Australia and help farmers who want to become part of that?” she says.
“We need passionate new farmers who understand that growing the crop is almost the easy part. It’s the infrastructure needed to get it off the tree, to stabilise it, that’s the challenge. And that’s why we’ve got to move to a community approach with a centralised mill and wet plant so that each farm doesn’t have to outlay that huge cost.”
In Australia, customers buy Skybury Coffee for nostalgic reasons and its “traditionally-loved flavours”. Overseas, large volumes sell due to its quality.
“We can provide 10-tonne lots that customers know is consistent year in year out,” Candy says.
Such international buyers include loyal Japanese businesses who have bought Skybury coffee for the past 15 years, as well as suppliers from Hamburg and Spain who buy pallets and distribute it, including to businesses in Europe.
“It’s a wonderful outcome for the family [to see our coffee consumed throughout the world]. It’s validation for the work dad did in the very beginning. He worked quite hard in establishing long-term relationships with traders in Spain and Hamburg,” Candy says.
Back on Australian soil, Candy says it’s always been challenging for Skybury to compete with international sale prices. While that’s shifted in the past 12 months, it has made Skybury that bit more affordable to Australian businesses.
“Our policy has always been to deal through traders and not through individuals, but you may see that change in years to come. We understand we will get a greater cut-through by dealing with the roasters who are passionate about showcasing Australian coffee. If we can make it more affordable for them, then I think it’s probably a way we can reintegrate ourselves into the domestic market,” Candy says.
“It’s about getting the appetite for consumers to make the switch [to Australian coffee], and for more roasters to use Australian coffee. If all roasters showcased an Aussie coffee one month a year, we would never have an issue selling our product.”
It’s a solution Ian MacLaughin would love to see. Candy says her father has been called “a maverick” within the coffee growing community, but he would probably say he’s more “a leader”.
“We’re always going to be part of the founding farming group around coffee in Australia. It’s the right time for the next generation to take over because I do think the Australian coffee industry is going to change. It’s pivoting now and the way the world perceives coffee, particularly farmers and what they’re doing, has certainly changed quite significantly in the past five to 10 years,” Candy says.
“There are still components of farming that are about soil health, water, and nutrition, which are my brother’s areas of expertise.
“But for me, we’re running a business now. How do you stay relevant, front of centre, find sales, and engage with your customers? You need a diverse understanding of business, and that’s what I enjoy.”