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.
A tour 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 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.
“Five years ago we wouldn’t have had the market for this sort of bread,” says Jared. “When we starting making the artisan loaves, like sourdough, Dad wasn’t keen. He thought they looked horrible and wondered who would buy them.”
Aidan asks if I’d like to try their carrot bread and I’m surprised that the sliced loaf he puts in front of me looks fairly standard. “Bread with a side of veg,’’ he says. “It’s supposed to be an everyday sliced bread that kids are going to like, too.”
Containing grated carrot and a hint of spice, the bread is the result of a collaboration with local carrot grower Kalfresh, whose previous projects include a limited-edition carrot beer called Wabbit Saison. Made by Ipswich brewer Wade Curtis, it made headlines as far away as the United States.
About 15 minutes from Boonah is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it township of Mount Alford (population 344). Mike and Wendy Webster moved here from Brisbane four years ago and are about to launch Scenic Rim Brewery in a 130-year-old former general store that once sold smokes and bread to local campers.
The couple have been restoring the building themselves, preserving as many of the original features as possible. There will be six beers on tap, three of them brewed on site in 1000-litre stainless-steel tanks.
According to Mike, who is also president of Scenic Rim Tourism, this year has been a bumper one for tourism in the region. “The Scenic Rim has been a secret for too long but in 2016, tourism has really exploded. We’ve seen the number of visitors calling in to the local tourism office rise from 800 a month to up to 1800 a month, as people are starting to realise what we’ve got to offer.”
Drive half an hour south-east and you’ll come to Rathlogan Grove, an olive grove that’s also feeling the effects of booming tourism in the region. Visitor numbers have tripled in the past year and owner Lou Cheevers says they’ve had to seal the road up to their Rathdowney property to accommodate the increased traffic.
When I arrive for a coffee and a look around, I’m greeted by Koda, a red cattle dog, and a somewhat smaller version, a puppy called Koko. “She’s his girlfriend,” Lou says of the rambunctious Koko. “Although he doesn’t know it yet and, frankly, he doesn’t seem that keen.”
Lou and her husband, Matt, have transformed a farm shed on their property into a stylish homewares store and café that’s open for morning and afternoon tea on weekends. All the food, including cakes and tarts, is made in-house by Lou, while Matt is a gun barista. They also sell their own olive oil, jars of olives and olive-based products such as tapenade.
Rathlogan Grove, which is located at the base of Mount Barney, has 1200 trees spread over 69 hectares. “We got 1000 litres of oil and two tonnes of table olives last year,” says Lou. “And it’s looking good for this year.”
This part of the Scenic Rim is cattle country – beef as well as dairy. I’m staying the night at Lillydale, a farmstay and producer of Angus beef. Lillydale is practically a neighbour of Rathlogan Grove, if you measure in country miles. I have to stop en route, both for animals on the road and to take a photo of the sunset. Framed by the mountains, it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous.
At Lillydale, I’m greeted by Pam and Doug Hardgrave and we sit outside with a glass of local red as the violet dusk turns to night. Doug, taciturn but friendly, is a third-generation farmer, his grandfather having settled at nearby Mount Lindesay in 1882. He bought Lillydale in 1969 and morphed from dairy to beef farming but plummeting cattle prices, drought and the natural beauty of the area inspired the couple to turn Lillydale into farmstay accommodation in 2000.
Guests are free to roam the property and check out all the animals: chooks, pigs, donkeys and, of course, cows. There are also spectacular views of Mount Barney from Lillydale. That night, I cook dinner on the barbecue: a grass-fed Angus beef steak, included as part of a pre-organised food pack. I have a momentary twinge, having “met” one of the cows on my walk today but it’s so tender and delicious that greed overcomes guilt.
In the morning, the mist that wreathes the midsection of Mount Barney looks like a ballerina’s tutu. I pack my car with Scenic Rim treasures – milk and yoghurt, vegetables, olives and honey – then head off with a wave from Doug and a hug from Pam. Later, when I get home and unpack, I find that Pam has slipped in a little care package – a bag of fresh pecans, an Angus rib roast and a dozen eggs. True country generosity. ￼