March 16, 2015

Green credentials driving coffee farmer’s overseas success

After struggling to find a buyer for his first crop of coffee, Ian MacLaughlin has gone on to become Australia’s largest exporter of Arabica coffee. He explains how sustainable practices helped him to create a competitive edge and underpin his continuing success.

Twenty-five years ago, coffee farmer Ian MacLaughlin struggled to find a buyer for his first crop of coffee bean in the local market.

Last season, Skybury Tropical Plantation in Far North Queensland produced close to 50 tonnes of premier single origin Arabica coffee, and most of it will be brewed in Europe and Asia.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve seen a growing demand for Australian coffee from Asia and, in particular, Singapore,” says Skybury Director Ian MacLaughlin, who features in the March pages of this year’s NAB Agribusiness calendar. “I believe this is due to growing awareness of Australia’s ‘green’ farming practices.”

It was after MacLaughlin found he could use his green credentials to create a competitive edge that his fortunes began to turn around; he’s been committed to sustainability ever since.

“I haven’t used organophosphate for more than 20 years and, over time, we’ve increased the carbon content of our soil tenfold,” he says. “I learned early on that increasing carbon levels reduces the need for manufactured chemicals because carbon molecules bind to the nutrients in the soil and stop them from leaching out. Carbon also increases water retention and reduces disease pressure in the field.”

He diversified into growing papaya and bananas which, as they each attract different pests, makes the farm less vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. He’s also trialling double cropping, where two different crops are planted together.

“Double cropping is highly sustainable, more productive and uses environmental resources such as land, water and sunlight more efficiently,” says MacLaughlin. “It also reduces lag between crops as well as pressure from insects and disease. Papaya and coffee are very complementary as they have similar nutrient requirements so we’re hoping that growing them together will boost our production of both.”

Learning on the job

MacLaughlin never intended to be a coffee farmer. “My wife Marion and I had recently moved to Australia and we were driving around looking at business opportunities,” he says. “We both loved the setting of Skybury so we bought it. I was working on the assumption that running a business is the same whether it’s a coffee farm or a grocery store.”

He soon realised it wasn’t quite that simple. “We spent the first five years learning the farming business and how to grow coffee,” he says. “For example, the plants were flowering all year round so we couldn’t harvest the beans. I had to find out how to make them all flower at once.”

Today, more than 90,000 trees flower simultaneously every year to spectacular effect. “For three days it looks as though the trees are covered with snow,” says MacLaughlin. “The flowers are also incredibly fragrant – the native bees just love them.”

The right people

The MacLaughlins spent their first decade on Skybury doing everything themselves. Today they have 50 employees.

“A lot of our success is down to working with the right people – people who drive us to do things in different ways,” MacLaughlin says. “We have a soil scientist on staff and our integrated pest management consultant has been with us for 20 years. Now we’re looking to bring in more research and development expertise for our papaya breeding program. We want to develop new varieties that people will seek out for their flavour.”

MacLaughlin will also continue to seek out commercially viable ways of farming more sustainably. “We’re running a business here,” he says. “If a practice isn’t commercially viable, it isn’t sustainable.”

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