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Innovative farmers up for prestigious industry award

CANDY MCLAUGHLIN
Skybury, Mareeba

“I had a very diverse childhood. I was born in Zimbabwe and my parents were always in search for something amazing, and opportunities which led us to Oman, the United Kingdom, and eventually, Mareeba where they purchased a coffee plantation when I was 10 years old.

The environment was similar to Zimbabwe and that hooked them. At harvest, Dad would drive the tractor, I would bin haul and my Mum and two brothers would run the wet plant.”

In 1994, Ian (Candy’s father) introduced papaya to give the farm stability and a cash crop. Today, Skybury is one of the largest growers in the region. Candy spent her holidays during her university years picking paw paws, but farming was never front of mind as a career choice, but being involved in a business was.

She completed a degree in design and communication, spent time living and working in London and also served as a corrections custodial officer at Lotus Glen Correctional Centre.

“We were always encouraged to find our own way, be successful, take every opportunity and run with it.”

By the time Candy returned to the family business, initially on a part-time basis, she was a mother to three children. In November 2017, Ian offered Candy a position as General Manager.

In that role, she provides the linkage between all facets of the business which includes the Skybury Café, NQ Gold Coffee, Skybury Wholesale and Retail Roasting, along with the centre’s research and development facility and nursery, and land preparation, development and vehicle maintenance sections.

The most critical linkage is the marketing company Tropical Fruit Direct, based in Brisbane, as they provide the link between retailers, wholesalers and the farm.

“The first year (2018) was spent getting back to the basics by spending a lot of time in the field with the crews, walking the paddocks and picking up fundamental knowledge.

“Dad got me to do basic stuff, his philosophy was “you won’t understand, you won’t get it unless you’ve done it yourself.

Candy oversees production on the 470-acre farm, targeted at 200,000 kilograms of papaya every week (more than 60 pallets on a big packing day).

Coffee production is currently sitting at 30 tonnes, down due to seasonal conditions and a change in farming practices, however, Candy has her eyes firmly on reinvigorating this part of the business – and Australia’s reputation as a coffee grower – with some innovative projects.

Candy’s 10-year plan for every section of the business to be profitable and sustainable, is well on its way.

The thriving agricultural business employs around 80 fulltime staff and has a unique arrangement with Papua New Guinea, under the Seasonal Workers Program. Candy is heavily involved with Tropical Fruit Direct (TFD), founded in February of 2019 as a joint venture between Skybury and JE Tipper.

TFD is a grower initiative and moves Skybury into a new direction with respect to papaya sales. Candy is also currently leading the coffee charge with an exciting new collaboration which aims to disprove the theory that Australia can’t produce good coffee and, as a by-product, raise the profile of Skybury.

As growers, Candy and her family have always pushed the boundaries in farming. In 2017, they introduced dual cropping – where they grow coffee and papaya in the same row and with value-adding one of Candy’s big passions she has formed a collaboration with fourthyear marketing and product development students from the University of Queensland who will work with Skybury to develop a business plan for a papaya value-added project.

Candy is focused on helping grow the papaya market.

“Papaya is consumed by only 10 per cent of Australian households. It doesn’t matter which brand you pick up, as long as we sell a papaya then the whole market will grow. As farmers, it is simply not enough to grow quality produce – you must drive demand for that produce and engage with your customers. That is increasingly becoming the face of modern farming.”

PAUL INDERBITZIN
Kureen Farming, Lakeland

“I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful childhood growing up on a farm in Malanda. Throughout my childhood, my uncle and aunty farmed at Lakeland, so my upbringing was spent in contrast – from the wet, at time drizzly conditions near Malanda, to the blue skies and warmer weather at Lakeland. It was amazing growing up in that family setting. It opened my eyes to so many different crops, from dairy cows to peanuts, bananas, corn and more recently high value horticulture.”

After completing a three-year agronomy/horticultural degree at the University of Queensland at the end of 2007, Paul returned to the family farming operation, Kureen Farming, Lakeland, – and has never left.

As farm manager, Paul, 32, is responsible for the day-to-day running of the family’s Lakeland farming operations which include bananas, avocadoes and broadacre irrigated cropping such as seed sorghum and lab lab and hay.

“After Cyclone Yasi, we started growing bananas. A series of dry years forced our hand to reduce banana acreage to ensure we had the water supplies to get through the tough years. We built a dam on the property to increase water security and this has enabled us to diversify into high value horticulture crops including avocados. It allows us to flex the broadacre cropping, depending on water availability.”

In 2013, Paul received a Nuffield Scholarship, supported by Horticulture Innovation Australia and the Banana Levy. The scholarship is provided with support of industry bodies, to develop and promote excellence in all aspects of Australian agricultural production, distribution and management.

Paul studied fruit quality, biosecurity and waste management in the banana industry. He has nothing but praise for the lifechanging experience, one that no doubt set him up for the current leadership positions he holds within the industry.

“It opens up your eyes to global agriculture. The Nuffield experience taught me you have to “think global and act local”.

One of the biggest lessons Nuffield taught Paul was to look at the farm as a business. It prompted a rethink on the direction of the family operation which was, at that stage, heavily dominated by bananas.

“We diversified our agriculture portfolio and introduced new crops. Nuffield taught me that we need to keep the consumer first and foremost in what we do and really sell the “why” our farming business operates, why we want to grow really good products and feed people the best quality food we can.”

Sustainable farming has also always been front of mind for Paul and his family. It’s part of the ‘why’ in their day to day. From sustainable water practices through drip tape irrigation and automated monitoring irrigation, to solar power to feed the banana packing shed – and the fermenting tanks that provide an extra biological back into the orchard.

In 2016, Paul accepted an invitation to be a director on the Australian Banana Growers Council’s board of directors, sitting as part of the seven-member board. For Paul, the chance to sit on one of the horticulture’s most influential industry representative groups allows him the opportunity to give back to the industry that has given his family so much.

“I didn’t want to be a grower sitting on the fence, passing comments about issues. I want to be in there, helping make a difference and be a part of the decision making. It’s also my way of giving back to the industry. Paul is also a member of Hort Innovation Marketing Strategic Industry Advisory Panel which provides crucial feedback and advice to the Hort Innovation marketing team (Australian Bananas).

Leadership roles aside, Paul considers is current role – farming – as his biggest achievement.

“I learnt more the first year out of university than the three years at university. Farming is an amazing job where you have to be across so many different things. It’s such a privilege to be able to farm. It’s living the dream at times, but can be a bit of a headache at other times. I love the variety.”

FRANK & DIANNE SCIACCA
Pacific Coast Eco Bananas, Boogan

Dianne Sciacca remembers the pivotal moment husband Frank started their new farming journey.

“He was looking out the back window over our cane farm and he said I’m throwing more fertilizer on the paddocks and I’m not getting any extra tonnage and my CCS is dropping.”

It began a 30-year journey to develop a unique, trademark certified farming system, Ecoganic, which led to the launch of Pacific Coast Eco Bananas. Ecoganics is a balanced farming system that works with nature to produce a healthy product while protecting the environment. Frank’s farming epiphany came at a time of major change in his life.

It was the late 1980s and Frank and Dianne had two small children. Frank and his brothers had developed pond prawn farming – the first in Australia – which led him into scientific research about ecosystems. At the same time, the Sciaccas were looking for a new crop and the banana industry was experiencing growth.

“I vowed if I did another crop, I wasn’t going to farm the way I farmed with sugar. I wanted to farm differently, and not use chemicals and fertilisers.” Frank said.

Building on his new-found knowledge of the ecosystem, Frank delved deeper into sustainable farming. It signaled the start of a new era for the Sciacca family and the nation’s banana industry. The unique, award-winning farming system is essentially farming with nature and understanding the importance of the environment and how the natural ecosystem can assist in farming.

It promotes sustainable production practices that are good for the environment and the consumer. Frank and Dianne developed the system – which combines international environmental management standards with organic based production certification – on their 120-acre Boogan farm.

In 2000, the first commercial trials of the red tipped Pacific Coast Eco Bananas were launched in the marketplace – not without some pushback.

“The agents thought they would pay us like every other product. Within six months we needed to put a price on the product that reflected the product – if you can’t get enough money to cover your costs of farming sustainably, what is the point.”

The red wax tip was no accident. Frank chose it as branding mechanism, to separate his bananas in the marketplace from conventionally grown produce. Spreading the message behind the product – and the farming system – is critically important to the farming innovator.

In 2002, Pacific Coast Eco Bananas became a registered trademark and four other passionate farmers joined, with a total growing area of 1000 hectares. Today, the group ships out around 80 tonnes of red-tipped bananas every week, to wholesale markets in each of the capital cities, along with Woolworths.

Frank and Dianne developed a unique packaging system for the export market and have since had much success sending red-tipped bananas into Hong Kong, with new markets opening in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific. Frank and Dianne are also in discussions with Growcom to deliver the ecoganic farming system to other industries.

The couple’s passion for the environment has also been recognised. In 2017, they received the prestigious Prince of Wales Environmental Leadership – Reef Sustainability Award. And in 2006, the Queensland Government’s Sustainable Industries Rural Sustainability Award.

While humbled to be recognised, Frank and Dianne believe the accolades are just as important for the other farmers in the group and say their sustainable farming journey continues to evolve – 30 years on.

“If you don’t have the commitment, heart and belief in what you are doing is right you wouldn’t see it through because there are a lot of things that would put you at the point of walking away.

“The future of farming is a combination of technology, education and, more importantly, knowing nature’s resources and what role they play.”

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