This piece of rural paradise is home to some of Queensland’s best produce. Natascha Mirosch tours the region and meets its farmers and growers. Photography by Kara Rosenlund.
Feast your eyes – and belly – in this emerging food bowl
ATOUR bus has just disgorged passengers onto the muddy drive outside the milking shed. Inside, the smell is, well, barnyard – to put it kindly. Once the group is seated and settled, Greg Dennis introduces himself and welcomes the group to his farm, Scenic Rim Robotic Dairy. “Before deregulation [in 2000], there were 1600 dairy farms in Queensland,” he says. “You know how many there are now? Four hundred!”
While Greg – known as Farmer Gregie – talks, there’s a gentle pneumatic hiss behind him. He turns and waves his arm at a machine. “And this is what saved our farm. Our Lely robot.”
In a case of adapt or perish, the Dennis family, who’ve been dairy farming here since the 1930s, transformed the way they do things, replacing rotary milking machines with a robot in 2010. They also started offering tours of their farm in Tamrookum, about 90 minutes from Brisbane.
These tours are one of many reasons why food-minded visitors are flocking to the Scenic Rim, a fertile rural paradise of immense natural beauty west of the Gold Coast. Twenty-five million years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption left a legacy of alluvial soil that offers rich rewards to those who farm here. The area is dotted with roadside stalls where you can buy anything from Kent pumpkins, heritage tomatoes, onions and earth-dusted potatoes to garlic, greens, herbs and honey – just slip your money into the honesty box.
As Farmer Gregie talks, one of his herd ambles into the machine’s waiting arms. “That’s Liz; she’s four. Right now, the robot is scanning a tag on her collar, recording her name and weight.”
A brush cleans her teats and stimulates the milk flow then the robot attaches pumps and begins the milking process. Liz, unperturbed, snacks on a feed of hay and silage that drops into a feeder. Once she’s done, a brush descends and gives her a friendly head scratch. The dairy has four of these robots, working 24/7. Milking is done on a voluntary system, with the cows choosing what time of day or night they come to be milked and even, we’re told, which robot they prefer.
Farmer Gregie has become what he describes as an “accidental activist”, speaking out on behalf of dairy farmers. In July, he drove his bright-green Deutz-Fahr tractor 2000 kilometres around Queensland to highlight their plight.
As well as the unsustainable prices set for farmers’ milk, homogenisation is another subject that fires him up. “Anyone know why we only do full-cream milk?” he asks the crowd. “No? I’ll tell you why. Most people think homogenising milk is just mixing the cream, the fat, through the milk, right? But it’s not. The process of homogenisation destroys the structure and nutrition of the milk.”
So how does unhomogenised, robotically harvested milk taste? Despite the sci-fi way it is collected, it’s just like old-school milk; the stuff that used to come in glass bottles, delivered to your door. And it’s delicious.
Back on the road, I drive past grazing cattle and fields of deep green. And mountains. Wherever you are in the more than 4000 square kilometres that make up the Scenic Rim, you’ll see mountains – the ancient remnants of those volcanoes.
The town of Boonah, roughly equidistant from Brisbane and the Gold Coast, is the region’s geographic heart. Lately there’s been an injection of vitality into the once-somnolent town, thanks to an infusion of new blood and younger generations returning to their roots.
Andy Kendrick and Erin Talbot, who own Poppi’s Health Food Store and Wholefood Cafe (poppis.com.au) in Boonah’s main street, moved here from Melbourne four years ago. They opened Poppi’s in April this year. “I grew up in Tassie and the moment we had kids, I knew I wanted to move back to the country,” says Andy.
The gregarious café proprietor is also a liaison officer with the local tourism board and a passionate advocate of his adopted home. “There’s been such a huge shift in Boonah and the older generation have been instrumental in embracing it,” he says. “It’s awesome.”
Poppi’s is in the town’s oldest building, which was originally a bank. It would probably be classified “hipster” if it were in Sydney or Melbourne but here it just feels authentic and welcoming. Locals constantly pop in for big breakfasts served in cast-iron pans, takeaway raw slices and gluten-free, dairy-free or Paleo treats. Even the turmeric lattes have been a hit. “Our driving passion is to encourage everyone to eat well and eat local,” says Andy.
From Poppi’s, it’s a short stroll down High Street to Arthur Clive’s Family Bakehouse (07 5463 2519). The bespectacled Arthur, depicted in the bakery’s logo, opened his first bakery in the 1930s. This is the third and most recent opening for the Pennell family, who also have bakeries in the nearby towns of Aratula and Kalbar.
Three generations later, it is still very much a family affair, with Arthur’s grandsons, Aidan and Jared, a driving force, along with their father, Russell. Slowly, the brothers are morphing the businesses, expanding the traditional lamington and sliced-bread offerings to include artisan loaves and contemporary pastries.
Greg Dennis, of the Scenic Rim Robotic Dairy, is evangelical about farming innovation
(Below left) Boonah residents Andy Kendrick and Erin Talbot; their wholefood café, Poppi’s, is about “eating well and eating local”