When Pam and Martin Brook bought a run-down dairy farm in the Byron Bay hinterland in the late 1980s, they really weren’t sure what to do with the land. From those uncertain beginnings they have achieved an extraordinary amount, and this year they’re celebrating 20 years of Brookfarm, the business they established to add value to the macadamias they ended up growing on their property.
Brookfarm has become synonymous with deliciously nourishing macadamia breakfast cereals, snacks, oils and more recently baby cereal, and the Brook family’s macadamia farm is now also home to Cape Byron Distillery, where macadamias play a role in creating award-winning craft spirits.
Brookfarm is the story of a family that took a risk and stared down many failed product concepts, but had the grit, determination and vision needed to grow a sought-after brand and a thriving business.
Now employing around 70 staff, producing more than 40 products and exporting to over 15 countries around the world, the Brookfarm story is a masterclass in what’s possible with macadamias. From growing them to value-adding, diversifying and exporting, the Brooks have taken Australia’s homegrown nut and showcased its taste, texture and versatility in an array of innovative and exciting ways.
We sat down with Pam and Martin to reflect on how far the business has come, where they find their inspiration for new product development, their proudest moments throughout the journey so far, and how they feel about the future of the Australian macadamia industry.
How did you come to be part of the Australian macadamia industry?
Martin: I would love to say it was well planned but that wasn’t the case. When we first bought our 36-hectare property in 1989, we were living in Melbourne; Pam was working in dentistry and I was in film and television production. We had intended to move our family to the farm straight away, but then Australia went into an economic recession, forcing us to delay the plan. Finally 10 years later we moved there permanently.
Pam: When we purchased the property, we knew very little about any kind of farming, let alone macadamia farming. We did a lot of research on crops that could be grown in the region we’d bought into, and had a friend who was growing macadamias at the time. He invited us over and when we saw his farm and his trees, we decided macadamias were the crop for us. The fact that we were entering an industry that offered a fabulous level of support to new growers was a big factor too. Martin physically worked the farm for the first two years we were living here and that’s how we learned the intricacies of growing macadamias.
What was your original vision for Brookfarm and have you achieved it?
Pam: Our original vision was to value add to macadamias in some way. We thought we’d be up and running within six months, but our first products didn’t work and it ended up taking two years of product development before we went to market.
Martin: At one point we were really up against it, with the time it was taking to create our first product seriously draining our resources and budget. We thought, ‘Have we made the right decision?’. But we knew it was a case of finding the right product, and I remember our light bulb moment so clearly. We were sitting around the dining room table asking ourselves, ‘What do we miss most about Melbourne when it comes to food?’ One of us said ‘I can’t seem to find a really good muesli’.
Pam: When I was growing up, my dad would make his own muesli in the morning from about 17 jars of ingredients. So we said, ‘Let’s create a high quality product and use not only macadamias but macadamia oil too.’ We wanted something that was really delicious and nutritionally rich. So the first product we took to market was our muesli, and it went from there.
You have proven to be great innovators. Where do you find your inspiration for new products?
Pam: I get a lot of ideas from staff and family and by observing the world around us, and the health trends that are coming, but aren’t mainstream yet. It could be a trend emerging from somewhere a bit obscure. Or maybe something we like the taste of but hasn’t been done well. Brookfarm Porrij is a good example of this – there were porridge products around, but nobody had done one with macadamias and almonds and completely sugar free. So we created one. It’s so special and healthy and nutritious.
Martin: We’ve always made our own recipes (well, Pam has) and it’s always been a fundamental principle of ours that it’s not enough to produce healthy food, it has to be great tasting as well.
What’s your favourite Brookfarm product?
Pam: I’m really proud of our Power Porrij and the Keto Paleo Granola. And I’m especially proud of our Bloom baby food. The Australian government’s allergy prevention advice now recommends introducing babies to common food allergens between 6 and 12 months of age. With Bloom we’ve found a way to introduce babies to tree nuts including macadamias, and we’re the only baby food to do so.
Martin: I’m still a big fan of the mueslis that we started our brand with. I love the natural one with cranberries – I eat it every morning. I also love our Premium Oven Roasted Whole Macadamias with Saltbush. I’m severely addicted!
Pam: But we love all our products and we have some new snacks coming out later this year. You’ve got to love everything about your own product otherwise there’s no point taking it to market.
20 years of building and growing Brookfarm must be filled with so many milestones and achievements, could you name one of your proudest?
Martin: I’m really proud of how our son Will, who started in the business sweeping floors, has now worked his way up to CEO. He’s brought a whole new insight to the business, and he’s extremely committed to ensuring our environmental and sustainability credentials are as strong as possible. I’m also proud of being able to provide people with a real job and a real career. It’s been wonderful seeing the difference that has occurred in some of the people who have worked for us when they have a secure job that that really like. It has made a big difference to them and their families.
Pam: When we won the Telstra Business of the Year award in 2007 that was really special, especially given we were a much smaller business at the time. The funny thing was, when I found out we’d won I was thinking, ‘This is our proudest moment’ but when we got to the awards ceremony and I saw all the other businesses there, I realised it was just the beginning. Now with all the things Will is doing with the business, we can really see the company going to the next level.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during Brookfarm’s first 20 years?
Pam: From early on the biggest lesson was to make sure you’re working on the business not just in the business. I’ve also learned the importance of collaborating and networking. The support we receive from other producers and growers in our area has been a big factor for us, as has that of the Australian Macadamia Society.
Martin: For me it’s having a great team with great skills – better skills than us, and giving them the freedom to blossom and evolve. It’s important to be willing to let go, even when that doesn’t come easily. We’ve learned to let people have their independence even while working in a team, and to be open to other people’s great ideas and different ways of doing things.
Did you always hope that your sons would be involved in the business?
Pam: It wasn’t the plan to have them come into the business. We gave them the freedom to pursue their dreams the way we did. Will studied music and teaching, but eventually came to us and said, ‘My passion is Brookfarm.’ Eddie studied business and loved the bar and cocktail industry, which led to the establishment of the Cape Byron Distillery on our farm. But both boys were involved in our business from a young age, helping us make the product, hand-label every packet of muesli, and sell it at the markets. When we would do the Brisbane markets they’d be up at 3.30am. They weren’t that happy about it, but it was part of the deal!
Martin: We even had them involved in our hobby – rainforest regeneration. In the early years when we were still doing the long annual drive from Melbourne, most kids their age were at the beach in Byron, but ours were helping their mum and dad plant trees and clear scrub!
Pam: The boys have sustainability as a top priority for Brookfarm and Cape Byron Distillery, and the businesses are being managed for generations to come, not to build and sell. The basic ethics and philosophy we had when we established Brookfarm have been embraced by the boys.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Australia’s macadamia industry over the past 20 years?
Martin: The Australian industry is taking the lead now in terms of biological pest and disease eradication. It’s headed down a really positive path of regenerative agriculture that will improve our soils, help capture carbon and increase biodiversity. The progress being made in areas such as canopy management and reduced chemical crop protection is fantastic, and that’s due to the leadership within the industry.
Pam: Our industry’s marketing has become much more sophisticated, which has helped us maintain our crucially important premium positioning. There’s also been a great commitment to innovation in all its forms – in products, research and development and in the sustainable farming space. The more we can do to reduce our chemical and waste footprint, the better, and continual investment in our processing capabilities will help our industry to reduce its carbon miles too.
How are you planning on celebrating this important milestone?
Pam: Some people have week-long birthdays, but ours is going to be a year-long with multiple celebrations planned, although of course they’ll have to be done differently in this Covid world. We’ll celebrate with our staff and other people who have been part of the journey. For us it’s really a celebration for the people who work with us every day.
What do the next 20 years hold for you?
Martin: The businesses will grow and change as Will and Eddie take them to the next level. Under the boys’ leadership we’ve developed a third business that will be launching soon that will have a very strong environmental connection and help to make a difference to climate change. Watch this space!