VIDEO: Chocolate is the answer

By: Anna Game-Lopata, Video by: David Gilchrist

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When tropical north Queensland sugar cane farmer Gerard Puglisi decided to diversify he did it big, becoming Australia’s largest supplier of cocoa. Anna Game-Lopata catches up with him.

Most growers have fields that are just a pain in the butt to harvest, or don’t perform as well as the others.

Backing straight on to far north Queensland’s stunning Daintree Rainforest, fourth generation sugar cane farmer Gerard Puglisi’s low yielding block was the victim of feral pig attacks every year. The family nicknamed it the "pig block" and was about to fallow it permanently.

That was about eight years ago, when a neighbouring farm not far from Puglisi’s operation was trialling cocoa as part of research undertaken by Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and confectionary giant Cadbury.

"Cadbury didn’t want to be at the whim of politically unstable suppliers, so it decided to see if cocoa would grow in Australia," Puglisi says.

A line was drawn 18 degrees north of the equator stretching from the east coast of Australia to the west, and 10 different trial sites were set up.

Unfortunately for Australia, only two yielded cocoa in commercial quantities, both on the east coast of Queensland in the tropical north.

When cyclone Larry decimated the Innisfail operation in 2006, just one was left; Australia’s pioneering cocoa plantation run by John Goodman near Mossman about 10 minutes from Port Douglas.

Gerard Puglisi, always cutting edge and on the lookout for a good opportunity decided to take up the mantle.

"John Goodman was trialling about eight different varieties of cocoa on his farm and the best three yielding varieties are the ones we ended up with," Puglisi says.

Now Puglisi Farming is the largest supplier of cocoa pods to Daintree Estate, a company it jointly owns with a group of local grower shareholders and other investors.

Processed at a newly leased facility in Mossman, Daintree Estate produces the country’s only brand of Australian origin chocolate.

John Goodman still supplies Daintree Estate but most of the cocoa is derived from Puglisi’s operation. Local sugar is sourced from the Mossman Mill, which Puglisi also supplies.

"We have 188 hectares under cane, which is our major crop, but we now also have 2ha of cocoa or 1,800 trees," he enthuses.

Puglisi isn’t precious. He’d like to see more sugar cane producers in the region plant cocoa.

"If every cane farmer put in 1ha of cocoa we’d have a pretty good chocolate industry," he says.

"I’d like to see it get up to about 50 or 60 hectares. The chocolate industry is so big; we’re just a small part of it. If we can take 1 per cent of the global chocolate market we’d be happy.

"People eat chocolate when they’re happy and sad so there will always be a market for it," he adds.

Read the full feature in which Puglisi talks more about his background and the farming techniques he uses on farm in the next issue of New Farm Machinery magazine, on-sale April 27. 

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