Joy Phelps (left) and Joan Dibden check on the coffee berries at Wombah Coffee Plantation.
Joy Phelps (left) and Joan Dibden check on the coffee berries at Wombah Coffee Plantation. Graham Orams

Wombah plantation revived industry

THEIR business began as a small nursery under a tree in their backyard.

From there it has grown into a small phenomenon.

Joan Dibden and Joy Phelps own and run Wombah Coffee Plantation in Woombah.

The retired nurses were the first commercial producers of coffee on the North Coast since the very early 1900s when the industry came to a standstill because of the removal of tariffs.

They began experimenting with coffee growing in the 1960s and went into commercial production about 30 years ago.

“In the early days I successfully killed a lot of trees,” Joan said.

“The first 100-odd we thought all had died, but there was a gentleman in Maclean named Bob who had a nursery who told us they weren’t dead.

"We just had to wait until spring for them to bud.”

Joan and Joy got started by collecting small saplings, that sprouted under adult trees, from friends and neighbours in the area.

They have since come to identify the species as Bourbon Arabica (pronounced ‘Borbon’).

“It’s a very fine coffee and they’re a very good yielder,” Joy said.

“Joan’s got a biology degree so she was able to look at things under the microscope and identify things that were going wrong in the early days.

“We had to find a good fertiliser because nobody seemed to know what we should use.

“Somebody said they’d read we should use elephant manure but we thought, well, that’s a bit difficult to get so we settled on organically certified foliar fertiliser.”

Years later, Joan and Joy are now sought-after coffee producers.

“The demand outstrips supply.

"All the smaller local supermarkets – Spar, IGA – all stock locally produced coffee,” Joy said.

“Locally grown coffee is very, very good coffee.

"We’ve all won gold or silver medals at the Royal Easter Show.

“Local coffee almost always gets a silver medal, above all the other imported coffees.”

However, both women conceded there was still a perception among some people that locally grown coffee couldn’t be as good as that grown overseas.

They said there was an easy way to change that, though.

“Suck it and see.

"Then we’ve got you,” Joan said.

“There are so many people now who won’t drink anything else.

"And the local coffee is lower in caffeine, but we don’t know why.

“There’s no scientific reason for it. It’s not the land.

"We think it must just be the local environment.”

About 20 years ago Joy was appointed the first president of the NSW Coffee Growers Association.

Both women now judge the coffee at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney each year.

They also feature in James Mussak’s book, Great Chefs of Australia.



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