On The Land

13 October, 2023

Sky’s the limit for coffee farm

With World Coffee Day recently celebrated on 1 October, Skybury Coffee also celebrated the honour of being Australia’s longest operating commercial coffee plantation.

By Brigitte Daley

Founders of Skybury Farms, Marion and Ian MacLaughin.
Founders of Skybury Farms, Marion and Ian MacLaughin.

Located just outside Mareeba and established in 1987, Skybury Coffee is renowned for having a successful domestic and international reputation.

Founders Ian and Marion MacLaughin purchased the established coffee plantation because its outlook reminded them of their former home in Southern Africa.

It was an opportunity to establish themselves with a crop that was not mainstream. 

Ian and Marion have always strived to be leaders and innovators in sustainable agricultural management principles.

Skybury practices include water conservation, renewable power, erosion control, integrated pest management and dual cropping.

Skybury Coffee general manager Candy MacLaughin said the most rewarding thing about growing coffee is the way which it allows them to connect with both international and domestic customers.

“The brand Skybury is now well recognised in the coffee industry and this provides the family with long term sustainability and the challenge of ensuring a consistent product year on year,” Candy said.

“Coffee was our starting point in Australia and so has an emotional attachment for the family.”

Two varieties of coffee are currently planted - Catuai and Bourbon. 

They are both subspecies of Arabica Coffee.

“There is some research being undertaken on coffee varieties in Australia but we have not found the need to change what we are growing, our varieties suit our farming conditions and what our customers need with respect to taste profile,” Candy said.

“These varieties were selected for their growing styles, production volumes and taste characteristics.

“Coffee loves a temperate climate, not too hot and not too cold. 

“It can't tolerate frost and loves a regular drink of water.

“Mareeba has been identified as one of the best places to grow coffee for these reasons.” 

All the coffee which is grown by Skybury is planted in conjunction with red papaya as a dual crop. 

The sandy soils and subtropical climate provide the perfect growing conditions for both crops.

“This brings the coffee into production faster and assists with weed management, fertiliser applications and water requirements, the total inputs are still less than growing two crops in different fields,” she said.

Coffee takes from four to five years from planting until the first commercial harvest and when dual cropped under papaya only takes three years until the first commercial crop is obtained. 

Coffee trees can live in excess of 80-100 years and are sometimes referred to as a centurion plant, but productivity declines at around 10 years.

Peak production is obtained between six and eight years with Skybury harvesting on average 1.5 tonnes of green coffee bean per hectare. 

“Skybury’s current production is averaging around 30 tonnes for the year at the moment, we grow according to our own needs for our roastery and that of our customers,” Candy said.

Every year in October, the plantation’s coffee trees spectacularly flower.

Skybury can synchronise this by controlling irrigation. 

The flowers’ perfume is likened to the heady scent of jasmine.

The coffee is harvested by combing the trees, using the vibrating “fingers” of a coffee harvester.

“I would say that there are about five other significant growers on the Tablelands and the number is holding steady,” Candy said. 

“Coffee has been identified as an emerging industry within agriculture but I would say this will take some time to develop.

“The world coffee price is still low compared to where Australian cost of production needs to be commercially viable.” 

One of the world’s most popular drinks, the beloved beverage is known for its ability to boost energy levels, enhance athletic performance and support brain and heart health.

It may also lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and depression whilst protecting against liver disease and assisting with weight management, helping people to live a longer life.

In one of its more recent innovations, Skybury has branched out into making coffee cosmetics.

“We commenced the cosmetics about two years ago and this is a partnership between Skybury and B’Balmed, another local Mareeba business who wanted to use and showcase local produce,” Candy said. 

“It took time to source the equipment to press the oils and then create the right formula. 

“The cosmetics are a great example of how we are creating new opportunities through value-adding and finding uses for our products that can’t make it into the traditional market.

“The green coffee oil and face balms have been a huge success and I am confident that this will continue to grow in popularity as consumers become more aware of the health benefits of natural products and oils.

“Without the support of our local customers the Australian coffee industry would not be as successful as it currently is.”

Skybury’s Cafe and Roastery is the epicentre of the farms and welcomes the public to come and join in the tropical paddock to plate experience. The Cafe’s menu is inspired by what is grown on the farms.

During your visit, take a look around the coffee centre with its interpretive information. You can watch a series of short educational films in the cinema, browse through the gift shop, or sample Skybury’s papaya jams, chutneys, liqueurs and farm fresh produce. Open 10am-4pm, weekdays.

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