Tree-changers follow a passion and spice up mountain village

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When Tim and Georgia Connell travelled through Vietnam a few years ago, they were impressed by the vast star anise farms and enjoyed tasting the spice in much Asian cuisine.

Inspiration struck when they realised their home property, high on a plateau in the New South Wales Mid North Coast hinterland, offered similar soil and climactic conditions.

They decided to take a leap of faith and start a small star anise farm — the only one they know of in Australia — on the property at Comboyne, west of Port Macquarie.

A tiered farm, with a house at the top of the hill.A tiered farm, with a house at the top of the hill.
The farm is situated on the Comboyne plateau, in the Port Macquarie hinterland.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

“The crops overseas were just incredible; the area we went to in north-eastern Vietnam had about 70,000 hectares of star anise under cultivation, so it’s big industry.

“We were just really taken by the fact so many conditions were the same [as Comboyne], the height, elevation, amount of rainfall, very similar volcanic soil.”

‘Trial and error’: Star spice a new crop for Australia

Star anise is a spice made from the dried fruit of an evergreen tree.

It is popular in many international cuisines and has a flavour often likened to licorice.

Mr Connell said he liked the idea of contributing, even on a small scale, to the production of more food in Australia.

“I’ve spent most of my career running a manufacturing business and we exported all around the world and I have always been very keen on the idea of ‘made in Australia’,” Mr Connell said.

“Australia produces a lot of food, but we export it a lot and then import it back as value-added, and currently all star anise is imported into Australia.

A man and woman sit on a sit, with their large brown dog, overlooking mountains.A man and woman sit on a sit, with their large brown dog, overlooking mountains.
Tim Connell says moving to Comboyne was a great lifestyle decision.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

So far, the crop of just over 100 plants which was established about 18 months ago, is doing well although it will be some time before they produce fruit.

“Comboyne is a plateau and it’s surrounded by very steep mountains, and we are on the edge of the escarpment,” Mr Connell said.

“So this little orchard we have here is running down to a gully, I have about five terraces, with about 25 trees in each terrace.”

Mr Connell said he was yet to find another star anise grower in Australia, so it had been a process of trial and error.

“So it’s very much trial and error and seeing what works…what we’ve been doing so far seems to be working.

“It’s between three to five years the plants start to be really productive.”

Mr Connell said he was a hobby farmer and would love to connect with anyone else trying to farm star anise in Australia.

A handful of star aniseA handful of star anise
A Chinese farmer shows off a handful of star anise.(AFP)

“We are not planning on making this a full-time occupation; we’d love someone else to get interested and start planting star anise in Australia.”

‘Best move we ever made’

A man and woman sit on a bench in their backyard, with their dog, surrounded by red flowers.A man and woman sit on a bench in their backyard, with their dog, surrounded by red flowers.
Tim and Georgia Connell are Sydney tree-changers and have embraced life at Comboyne.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

The Connells are tree-changers originally from Sydney and have embraced life at Comboyne, also involved in community group, Creative Comboyne, and open garden events.

Mr Connell said he loved gardening and the star anise farm was another enjoyable venture.

“We are a big tree-changers from Sydney, best move we ever made.

“I certainly encourage a lot of other people to consider this sort of lifestyle option, because we are still close enough to Sydney, but we are living in just one of the most beautiful spots in Australia.”

Sweeping views over mountain ranges, with grass in the foreground.Sweeping views over mountain ranges, with grass in the foreground.
The star anise farm on the Comboyne plateau offers sweeping mountain views.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)