Country escape out of mining into farmstays

How a need for a mailbox gave birth to the Lee's family farm

Life & Style
Paul and Robyn on the top of their property, overlooking their home, farm, and cottages

Paul and Robyn on the top of their property, overlooking their home, farm, and cottages

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How Paul and Robyn Lee's transition out of the mining game gave birth to Greenlee Farm.

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In 1995 Robyn and Paul Lee decided it was time to finally get a mailbox and transition out of their transient lives in the mining game.

Far away from their careers in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea the couple purchased 30 hectares of once-grazing land in Canungra, in the foothills of the Darlington Range.

After three years, the couple's mailbox turned into their dream house, building a Queenslander in the middle of the property, overlooking the foothills of the Darlington Range and the pristine waters of the Canungra Creek.

Despite living a scenic masterpiece, Robyn and Paul were not looking to slow down their busy lives. Paul started his own business and Robyn looked to ways of making the farm self-sustainable.

Paul and Robyn's Queenslander home.

Paul and Robyn's Queenslander home.

"We were in the mining game for 25 years, and thought we need a block of land somewhere so we could get our mail sent to us," Paul said.

"I was running my business and we were just tinkering around with the property.

"For ten years, I was flying in and out of here and Robyn was holding the fort for most of that time."

Admittedly naive, Paul and Robyn started to look for ways to make the property pay for its own expenses.

"You can't just have 76 acres with nothing on it and we had to work it somehow and we just didn't know what," Robyn said.

Despite good careers in the resource sector, Paul said he knew they would have to make the property economically viable.

"Unless you have bags and bags of money, you can't have land like this and just think you'll survive," he said.

"Everybody knows property is just a big bucket that you throw money at."

Robyn and Paul started to do their research on what produce would be practical with their fly-in-fly-out lifestyle.

"We spent a lot of time at the Department of Primary Industries in Brisbane, and they had guides for what to grow," Robyn said.

"We were looking at citrus, passionfruit and stone fruit, but the problem with all of those fruits is that we were still going away for work and wouldn't be there to pick them."

"The problem with soft fruits is that you've got to get in and get out and get them to market but we weren't here to do that," Paul said.

Alas came macadamias, perfect for the cool climate and their hard encased wooden shells would protect them while Paul and Robyn were not around.

"Macadamias popped up and they seemed perfect because we could leave them on the ground for four to six weeks and we didn't have to pick them up right after they fell," Robyn said.

"We only planted 500, we knew we were never going to live off them and it was just something to do on the property," Paul said.

"We wanted something to fund making roads, fences, poisons and anything else the property needed.

"It was seven years until we got our first crop and the idea behind the macadamias was just to make the property self-sustainable."

After months of backbreaking work - from digging holes to planting trees, to laying down irrigation pipework - Paul and Robyn established Greenlee Farm.

"It was a lot of hard work and I think we would have planted a lot more if we could go back."

The farms macadamia orchard is looking promising for next harvest.

The farms macadamia orchard is looking promising for next harvest.

As if they weren't busy enough, Paul and Robyn also gave birth to their twin daughters Morgan and Victoria.

"For those first five years it was very much babies and farm," Robyn said.

"We didn't have irrigation, and we just had our twin girls so I would be watering trees with a baby monitor because we didn't have a water system yet."

Paul was still running his facilities management business while Robyn turned the property into a home.

"For 10 years, I was flying in and out of here and Robyn was holding the fort for most of that time," he said.

"We needed a place to settle, and this was a pretty great place to wake up every morning."

Paul and Robyn said the farm would have never gotten to where it was without the help of Willing Workers on Organic Farms program.

The program helped Greenlee Farm get off the ground, while providing food and accommodation to people wanting a taste of farm life.

"The end of WOOFers was a definite loss," Robyn said.

A photo collage of the family friends the Lee's have met through WWOOFers.

A photo collage of the family friends the Lee's have met through WWOOFers.

"We made friends for life through WOOFers; we were invited to weddings and have had people come back just for a visit.

"Seven years later, we're still friends."

Building on the business

The view from Greenlee's Woodcutters Cottage.

The view from Greenlee's Woodcutters Cottage.

In 2016, Paul and Robyn moved to diversify their business and opened four boutique cottages, welcoming visitors to experience their orchard and the experience the tranquility the Scenic Rim has to offer.

"The cottages came from a purely economic reason," Robyn said.

The four cottages offer a contemporary and rustic charm and give guests the opportunity to explore the region.

From birdwatchers to bridal parties, the cottages host anyone who is looking for a retreat in nature.

"We are in the one- or two-hour drive from Brisbane, Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast region and people feel safe making that drive, especially to experience something entirely different," Robyn said.

Paul said they wanted to make somewhere "perfect to have a glass of wine and watch the sundown".

"Lamington National Park and Tamborine Mountain are not too far away for people to go on day trips and there's always wildlife spotted around the property," he said.

The pandemic has brought a silver lining to their business, with more and more Australians turning to their own backyard for a holiday.

"We've been full pretty much every weekend," Paul said.

"December is traditionally quiet, no-one goes on holiday before Christmas, but we were fully booked out.

The names of the cottages - Callistemon, Silky Oak, Woodcutters and Casuarina - are an ode to Canungra's vibrant history and native tree species found in the region.

"I think it is really important to make sure a bit of history is captured in each of the cottages," Robyn said.

"My family has a history in woodcutting and so does the region, so it felt right to go for a timber style."

Paul said that it was important to make sure the cottages were made locally.

"We went out of our way to get the cottages built by local people and help their business," he said.

"The whole exercise has been about keeping things local, making sure people that come here eat local, so the region can grow."

Bushfires, bureaucracy and bad press

Paul rigging up his new 1000l water tank after last summer's bushfires.

Paul rigging up his new 1000l water tank after last summer's bushfires.

Like many in the region, the summer's heat has flared up some bushfire trauma.

Paul and Robyn's property was right in the thick of the 2019 horror bushfire season.

Walls of flames climbed over nearby hills and in a matter of moments the property was surrounded.

We're definitely much more sensitive to smoke on the hills these days - Paul Lee, Greenlee Farm

"Within fifteen minutes of it starting, we actually saw it coming over the hill," Robyn said.

It was the first time they had seen a bushfire of that magnitude since purchasing the property.

"We just thought somebody is just burning off," Paul said.

"Two or three of us went up there with a bit of water and thought we could put it out.

"It's always in the front of our mind, especially whenever there's a week of expected heat waves."

To help calm the nerves and provide some assurance for future fires Paul has rigged up a 1000 litre motorised water pump.

"We're definitely much more sensitive to smoke on the hills these days," Paul said.

"We are only just starting to see the wildlife come back.

"Everything looked like a moonscape not too long ago."

Robyn said that the farm was within inches of being completely destroyed.

"Our extra concern is that macadamias are as bad if not worse than eucalypts," Robyn said.

"They're full of oil so if we get a spark in that orchard, we wouldn't even try to defend it.

"It would be all over."

Robyn said that this year's expected La Nina rain event was very promising but water uncertainty is still the biggest issue for the property and the region.

"Our harvest is looking promising, but our biggest issue right now is going to be a lack of water," she said.

Paul and Robyn said the region needed proper infrastructure and that government and council had to start working together.

"Canungra isn't connected to any dam, the creek is our only water source," Robyn said.

"There's all this development around Canungra and the infrastructure just isn't there. The town is now way too big and there needs to be something done."

A spot to sit by Canungra Creek, the only water source in region.

A spot to sit by Canungra Creek, the only water source in region.

Robyn said the issue surrounding water is making the rebound from the bushfires even more difficult.

"We had the fires in September (2019) and we had all this media exposure, which wasn't great because nobody wants to come to where the fires have been and then in October, the next month, the town ran out of water, so we hit the headlines again," she said.

"It was really bad media exposure and now here we are a year later and it's still the same thing, we still need water trucked in.

"It feels like nobody has learnt and it's been really tough."

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