Season 1, Episode 11

Skybury Coffee and Papayas

Join Benjamin Starr on a trip up to Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands. Benjamin chats with Paul and Candy from Skybury coffee, Australia’s oldest coffee plantation. 

Get a behind the scenes look at what it takes to run a coffee plantation in the tropics and an insight into the busy operation of this eco-tourism business.

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Paul and Candy

Read the transcript


Benjamin Starr: Welcome to Drive Your Own Adventure. Well today we’re on the Atherton Tablelands up here in a beautiful setting. And we’ve got Candy and Paul, who run Skybury with us, to tell us about this fantastic place, that, well is a family entrepreneur, father driven enterprise. Like the Starship enterprise. 

Candy: That’s a good way of describing it, actually.

Ben: So, what is it about coffee then?  I mean, yes, it’s a, it’s a lovely tree. But what is it about coffee? Is it the experience that you like to provide people? Is it…

Candy: Um, I think the exciting thing for us is that we’re Australia’s oldest coffee plantation. Um, we’re not that old, thirty odd years now. And to me there’s more doors opening all the time. So, I’ll give you an example. We’re working with a young gentleman at the moment, called Oliver James.  An absolute passionate coffee geek, and he’s quite happy to be termed that, because he uses the word himself. And basically, what he’s saying, is that, they’ve pushed the envelope as far as they can in terms of what the barista can do. They’ve also pushed the envelope, as far as the roaster can do. So now what they’re doing is they’re coming back to the farmer. What can the farmer do to make my coffee taste a little bit different to the guy down the road, and the guy down the road after that? And for us it’s great, because I guess we always knew that the flavour started on the farm, it’s just taken a long time to get that full circle, and for everybody else to accept. It’s like wine, you know, it’s done in, on the farm, the way you change your flavour profile. And that’s the same for coffee. So, you can take coffee from one tree, process it ten different ways, you’re gonna get ten different tasting coffees, but from the same tree. And that’s what makes it really exciting. So, through those opportunities that we’ve got with this collaboration, we’ve kind of opened ourselves up to getting back on the international scene, making a stand and saying, ‘hey listen, Australian coffee’s amazing, try it.’ Because there’s a little bit of, um, a downer out there, I suppose.  But I’m just talking about Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, you know where the coffee scene is really vibe-y and, all the hipsters are into it. So, we’re trying to crack the hipster market.

Ben: Everyone wants the hipster market – even in radio.

Candy: You know that’s what Ollie’s saying to us. You’ve got everything you need here to set up a coffee facility where hipsters wanna come from the city, they want to come and hand pick coffee, they wanna process it, they want to make their own batch.

Ben:  Ah, so now it’s about giving them the experience.

Candy: Yes.

Ben: You’re providing the template?

Candy: Yes.

Ben: So, this is a whole new way of tourism.

Candy: Could be. I mean it’s all kind of stuff we’ve sat around with a glass of wine in our hands and said ‘why not?’ But let’s see what happens.

Ben: I much prefer coffee martinis, but there you go, I’ll take the wine second.

Candy: We could do coffee, yeah, that’s fine.  

Ben: Hipsters love that stuff.

Candy: What about coffee wine from the cherry? Because it’s a fruit.

Ben: Never tried it.

Candy: No, I don’t think anyone’s doing it yet, yeah, so that’s another thing, yeah.

Ben: Tell me, when you, when you walk through the property, do you have a deep respect for these trees? I mean… it…  what’s the… what’s the feeling when you walk through there?

Candy: Hmm, sometimes I think of them like humans. And you’re always evaluating them that way. You know, ‘why are you displaying those symptoms? What are you short of? How’s your water? What do you need?’ It’s like being a mum. And you know my brother’s the same, my Dad’s the same. Then we all kind of confer, and I go out and have a look. ‘Here? No, I don’t like it.’ So, he looks at his soil analysis, or leaf analysis, or his fertiliser. It’s just like tending, constantly tending, nurturing, in order to get the best results.

Ben: So you you mentioned before that, uh, no longer can you just be a farmer and open up your gate and go, ‘I’m going to water that crop and then I’m gonna sell those things there and,’ you’ve got to have scientists on board now.

Candy: Yep, absolutely, you’ve got to be very knowledgeable and aware of what the industries doing, where the industry’s pushing, um, what’s the next step? And it’s all, it is, and there’s a lot of I guess, um, regulations coming in too. You know with being… we’re not in the reef catchment, but we’re conscious that what we do impacts the land and we basically… there’s a very solid philosophy that my Dad set in place. He wants to leave this land in a better state in which he found it. And that’s how we farm. Those are the principles behind our farming.

Ben: Does that come at a cost?

Paul:  Um, it actually, I think some of the best environmental protection measures we’ve put in place on the farm, have actually saved the farm money as well.  So, I’ll give you an example. So, we capture a lot of our run off, um, and we recycle that water and put it back through. So that run off might contain some nutrients which the trees haven’t taken up. So that’s great for the environment because that nutrient like doesn’t go into local water courses.  It’s good for river systems, it’s good for the environment. But it’s also good for our bottom line because we’ve reduced our fertilizer use by ten percent. And that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.    So, you know we’re very conscious that we’re custodians of land, really. We’re there to pass it on.  Yes, notionally we own it. But really, we’ve got this… as farmers you have a real deep seeded connection to the, to the soil. Soil is king. The health of your environment and your soil health and that kind of thing really sustains your farming enterprise. All the other stuff you can deal with; cyclones and all that sort of stuff we can deal with. But looking after your land, and then the land will look after you.

Ben: What do you want people to learn when they come on a trip, say to Cairns. Do you want them to come up here and experience, what?

Paul: I think it happens before they come. So, if you look at our domestic market, it’s predominantly Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. And I think the showcasing of the region starts in those cities. So, it starts by those people experiencing coffee or a red papaya or Mareeba mangoes or avocados. And they get a taste of the tropics by doing that. Then in turn, that drives demand for visitation. Jeez hun, I want to go and see where this stuff’s grown, because it tastes gorgeous, and it’s consistently good. And if you look at all of the best foodie type destinations around the world, and Australia, you know Tassie – Tassie didn’t wake up        one morning and say, ‘we want to be a food destination,’ they really leveraged off the back of their quality produce. And that’s what they were known for. And then the pattern of visitation started because people wanted to explore the source of that produce. And I think Atherton Tablelands in this region is on a similar journey. And that’s what really excites us. So, it, it’s about showcasing our produce in market and then getting people up, and they can get into Cairns    quickly. There’s great accommodation, great facilities down there. Jump in a hire car, come and    explore, and actually get onto farming, and see the care and attention which farmers put into producing the crop. And most people, if they really haven’t experienced a farm before, they’re blown away by, you know, what’s involved in getting that piece of fruit down to Harris Farm market, or a Coles or a Woolies or whatever it might be.

Ben: I mean we do take, uh, in the city, all that for granted. I mean I used to teach kids that had never been to the beach. And, or kids that’d never been to the country, you know. And it’s sort of like, you really? I’m amazed sometimes you used to have to take people out at nineteen to show them how a cow makes milk. It was almost like, ‘are you serious?’ They’ll YouTube it. But that that doesn’t give you the experience. You’ve got to actually go there and do it. So, when people come here, what can they experience? What can they do? Can they walk through and have a look at the coffee plantations, and…

Candy:  Um, unfortunately it’s a little challenging for us, because, um, we’ve got eighty staff, so our vehicle movements probably in excess of twenty vehicles on the property at any time, moving around. So, but   they can come and have an insight. We’ve got a, I guess an interactive visitor center where there’s, um, signage they can read. The roaster’s going from time-to-time, so they can watch the roaster going.  Um, we’ve got a providore as well. So, they can come and see jams, and pickles, and chutneys being made. Our staff are very engaging. We’re right in the centre of the property as well, so you can hear the noise around you. (Coffee roasting sounds) As time allows, I think we will expand into that, and allow people to visit a part of the property. We just have to put the… I guess the mechanisms in place to allow that to happen safely. So, we’d love to get, you know the coffee harvester up here when it’s not being used, so people can have a look at how that’s working. Um, we’ve got equipment that can be brought up, and have used as demonstration, so small scale stuff.  So, we’re very conscious about what the visitor can do, and we keep pushing to I guess, make their experience bigger and better on each time. What we would say to them is come back and visit us again, because we’ll have something new for you.

Paul: Mmm.

Ben: Now you were talking about other revenue streams in businesses. So, tell us about what you had to do to create another revenue stream.

Candy: Yeah. I think the term is vertical integration. And that seems to be the ‘it word’, if you like. Um, and for us it’s about value add. So, we grow papaya, which is our predominant crop, and we have a lot of wastage. Um, a lot of its driven by consumers, unfortunately. Because they want the perfect fruit. And it just… nature doesn’t work that way. It has bumps, it has lumps, it has scars from where it grows on the tree. So that product, we have to discard. Um, so what we’re coming up with is ways of using it. So, whether it be a jam, chutney, a pickle, Paul’s always doing work on juicing avenues, freeze dried, um.  And there’s big talk, you know, that is something the government is working, is how to maximize farmers wastage. It’s, you know, they say, what is it a third Paul?   

Paul: Mmm, it can be up to a third. So, there’s a real push from farmers to look at ways of   raising revenue from that waste fruit. And when you think a third of produce being wasted at any one time… I mean it’s shocking, really.

Candy: So, they’re saying that a third of everything we produce in Australia is wasted. It doesn’t go to the… it’s not sold. It’s literally plowed back into the ground. So, we’re talking about kind of centralised hubs where farmers can put their excess. And that’s what it should be called. It’s not waste, it’s excess, surplus to requirements, let’s put it into a facility where we can either the basic. is generate fuel from it.  The other might be to value add and you can it. And then you can ship it all over the world, you can feed people. You know, it used to be paddock to plate. Maybe it’s pill to plate.  Let’s make it into a pill that the oldies can take. Or those who don’t have access to fresh fruit. So, that’s exciting to see what happens. Um, for now we just do what we can on the on farm. But I think in the next four to five years, we’d like to do a bigger project.

Paul: The staff are one of our key assets.  So again, I’ll give you an example is, is the guy’s picking papaya in the field, you know it’s hot, dirty work. Um, they’re out there five days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year sort of thing. But they’re not just pickers for us, they’re quality control. They’re the guys who are identifying problems in the field, they’re grading fruit as they go. They’re part of that quality journey. Um, and so it’s not just a case of, you know, ‘put everything on the trailer don’t worry about it. We’re actually empowering them to think. And to do the best job, and   we’ve got a really good senior management team in place. Um, and we get together once a week, and we share the vision for the business and their part of that as well. And, um, it’s really empowering, isn’t it? It’s good. As a family we don’t keep everything to ourselves. Um, we share    and that’s worked well, I think that the staff really appreciate that.

Ben: Because there’s a spirituality with working on the land too isn’t there? I mean, and I notice here you’ve got the Aboriginal kangaroo on your shirt.

Paul: Yeah. Absolutely.

Ben: The custodians of the land. Have they taught you much?


Candy: Absolutely. Um, to value the land, to be respectful for it. And we continue to learn as well. Mmm. I don’t think you’ll ever stop.


Ben: Well we started with the coffee, what is this lovely coffee we’re having, and tell people how they’re going to get here? So, they arrive, they’re on location in Far North Queensland.            What’s the best way to get here? What should they see on the way up the hill? And what should they see on the way down?


Candy: Hmm… I’d probably do a good triangle. If you’re starting in Cairns, come up the hill          via Kuranda, you can stop and see the markets there if you wanted to. Then make your way up to the plantation. Have coffee with us. You’re drinking a house roast, which is our most popular. Um, aim to spend a couple of hours with us. Have a light meal, have a big meal if you want. Everything on the menu features our paw-paw and coffee.  So, you have to have it either way. It’s all   incorporated.  Then have a, you know, go and read our Interp stuff, watch our videos, talk to the staff, they’re very informative. They’ll tell you about our papaya and our coffee. And then I think when you’re ready to head back down the hill, I probably go via Lake Mitchell, and then go through the Dain, um, go via Mossman and Port Douglas. Then you’ve got the coastal road on the way home. That’s a full day’s trip. Very scenic, pretty.


Paul: Yeah, I think what I would say to the visitor is, if you’re planning to spend four or five days in this region, then double it. Because, um, there’s so much to see. You know, people know Cairns, and Cairns is the gateway to the region, no doubt. But, just the sheer diversity of experiences you can have up here. And all in a relatively small geographical area. So on the coast you’ve got the rainforest, and you’ve got the beaches, and and and you’ve got that city vibe in Cairns, which is a really laid back  tropical city. Come up to the Atherton Tablelands. It’s cooler, you know really beautiful vistas, and scenery, and produce, and that kind of thing. You can sneak up to the Daintree and experience the world’s oldest rainforest and have a range of experiences up there. You know just the destination has got so much to offer. Um, and really get out and explore. Jump in a hire car and just take your, um, take your own time and explore.  And you know what? We’re only, this farm is only just over an hour away from Cairns International Airport. The distances are not big.

Ben: Now what’s the website that we can go to?

Candy: Nice and easy:

Ben: Fantastic. Well we’ve been chatting with Candy and Paul here today. Thank you very much for your time guys. And thank you for a wonderful insight to what you do as a career; and the insides of tourism, and eco-tourism. You’re doing a great job.

Paul: And thanks for coming up and thanks for your interest in our part of the world.

Ben: Time for coffee, I think.

Candy: Another one, yes.            

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