For as long as any Gold Coaster alive today can recall, a drive up the heavily-forested, snaking ascent of Tomewin Mountain Rd has meant a pit stop at Freeman’s Farm to enjoy their fresh produce.
The original, old, yellow truck that served as fruit stand for many years became a familiar landmark and signalled a welcome opportunity to refuel for those traversing the mountain ridge between Currumbin Valley and Murwillumbah.
The old truck may be obscured by a more expansive fruit and veggie stall, organic café and garden beds today, but there is much deeper history to Freeman’s that few visitors are aware of.
David Freeman is the fourth generation of his family to grow fresh fruit and vegetables here since his great great uncle Arthur Freeman began growing bananas here in 1915. But David has arguably ushered in greater change over the past five years than the previous 100. He has converted the entire property to organic farming methods, greatly expanded their range of crops, opened the café and produce stall, launched farm tours, organic farming courses and other activities to turn Freeman’s into a holistic hub of organic food production.
“I realised with a small farm like ours, the only way we could survive was to have a bit of an independent market and set up a retail outlet, because we’re on the doorstep of the Gold Coast,” says David.
But his path to organic farming was an unlikely one. David served as an Army officer and lawyer in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq and was medically discharged. Searching for a new focus, he returned to the family farm and growing fruit and vegetables became his therapy. “I did a year of agriculture before I did law. All my life I was a frustrated farmer,” he says now.
He threw himself into studying organic farming and converting the farm to organic principles. It has definitely been a case of “build it and they will come”. Since then, he’s hosted 2000 school children on his farm tours, six universities on study trips from South Korea, Japan and India, the farm has featured on television four times and David has built up a large social media following.
As well as the bananas, custard apples and avocados they have long been famous for, they now also grow cherries, olives, peaches, nectarines, plums, grapes, oranges, lemons, limes, tangelo and many other varieties. They are presently expanding their coffee plantation from 200 to 300 trees and plan to roast and serve their own coffee.
“We’ve created a botanical walk of health, featuring 100 different fruit trees. There’s something in season for 12 months of the year, and all the fruits have medicinal benefits,” says David.
“I’m very interested in the health of my soil which translates into nutrient dense food and better health.” This is all a far cry from the banana plantation that proved so lucrative for the first generation of Freeman farmers here.
Five generations ago the Freeman family was based on the South Coast of NSW at Narooma, on a property called “Kianga”, which means “fishing by light” in the local Indigenous language. The seven Freeman brothers went to boarding school in Sydney by steam boat. Four brothers became engineers and two became dentists. Arthur was the only one who didn’t go to university, but instead travelled to Fiji in 1905 in search of gold. He didn’t find much of the precious metal, but discovered gold in another form when he stumbled into the banana trade.
“By 1915, he had developed quite a big enterprise, with three ships, each with a 4000 tonne capacity, bringing 12,000 tonne of bananas a month to Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne,” says David.
“But when World War One broke out, the Australian government requisitioned the three ships to send troops to Gallipoli.”
Having lost his means of importing bananas to Australia, Arthur looked into growing them locally. He had heard of an experimental plot of bananas being grown in Queensland with some success and so went looking for suitable land to try his luck.
“He realised bananas were a tropical plant, so he knew he needed a warm north-easterly slope,” says David. “He came up to Murwillumbah, rode a horse out to Tomewin and bought 365 acres of virgin country, went back to Murwillumbah and recruited 40 South Sea Islanders and cleared 300 acres by hand.”
Over the next two years, Arthur and his work force planted 100 acres of bananas and maintained 200 acres for grazing cattle. The rich, volcanic soil proved so fertile that his banana trees grew four suckers per plant, producing about 170 kg of fruit each, and 2.5 million kg in total per year. By 1917 he was taking 1000 cases of bananas in 48 kg cedar boxes by horse and cart down to Currumbin each week, which were then transported by three separate trains to feed the burgeoning middle class of Melbourne, who had developed an unquenchable appetite for the still-exotic, tropical fruit.
By the 1920s, Freemans became the largest commercial banana farm in Australia and employed 40 staff at its peak. Arthur continued on very successfully until 1927 when an outbreak of the plant virus Bunchy Top decimated the local banana industry. He had to dig up his 100-acre plantation, but kept two experimental acres to try and research a solution to the scourge. He bought up three or four farms near Jacobs Well, which was outside the quarantine zone, and planted a new banana crop, until 1929, when the quarantine was lifted, and he replanted his Tomewin Mountain farm.
The business was so lucrative, Arthur convinced his brother Harold to leave his own successful dental practice and join him growing bananas. Harold bought 150 acres at Craig’s Crossing in Currumbin Valley and soon had a thriving banana plantation of his own. Sadly, Harold suffered a stroke a year later, at the age of just 37, but continued with other businesses and owned the General Store, the Post Office and a branch of the ES&A (English, Scottish and Australian) bank on Station Street, Currumbin. Arthur had only daughters and no sons, and so according to the conventions of the time, he offered his nephews the opportunity to join the family business and David’s grandfather Harold Joe Freeman, known as Joe, took up the offer and David’s father Bill followed in his footsteps. By the 1960s, they were also growing avocados and custard apples and had built a ripening shed and delivery service for the big supermarkets to diversify the business.
On top of their farming business, the Freemans have always been huge contributors to the community. Arthur and his brother Harold were both councillors, and Joe was a founding member of Currumbin Vikings Surf Club. David’s father Bill received an MBE in 1986 for services to the Commonwealth and is the oldest surviving member of the local Lions club, and Bill’s wife Lesley was made an OAM in 2008. They have regularly hosted charity concerts on the property to raise money for medical research.
Drive beyond Freemans Farm and you can still enjoy the panoramic views from the Arthur Freeman Lookout, in recognition of the family patriarch’s contribution to the region. Since retiring from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2014, David has thrown himself into his community where he is Patron of the Currumbin RSL, and is on the board of directors of the Currumbin RSL and Soilcare Australia. He is currently the Vice President of SKAL International – Southern Gold Coast (an international organisation of travel professionals promoting tourism and friendship), former Vice President of Gold Coast Organic Growers and regularly delivers lectures in International Humanitarian Law at Bond University.
That sense of community still permeates the farm today. They host a mums and bubs group on Fridays, with free craft and book readings for the little ones. Saturday is family day when kids can pick their own produce and learn where their food comes from, and also host community yoga classes. On Sundays, there is live music for the farm customers, and they also run farm tours for those wanting to learn more about organic farming, and on Mondays they offer 25% off all produce.
On a glorious Winter day, David proudly shows me around the property, scooping up handfuls of the rich, chocolate-coloured soil and inhaling it deeply to appreciate its aroma. He shows me the wasps’ nests that are hung on avocado trees to keep away pests rather than using chemical pesticides, and how he has resurrected nearly-dead, 100-year-old trees that are now dripping with fruit.
The old tennis court has been converted in an expansive organic vegetable patch and if he’s not manning the stall up top, he can usually be found happily roaming the property tending to his crops or showing visitors around. Weekends see the roadside produce stall and café buzzing with visitors, doing their weekly produce shop, enjoying a coffee and cake as they take in the spectacular hinterland views, or getting their hands dirty in the nearby garden beds, plucking fresh lettuces or strawberries.
Despite the enormous changes the farm and region around it have been through over the past century, David maintains one very simple ambition: “Leaving the farm in a better state than I found it.”
Address: 618 Tomewin Mountain Road, Currumbin Valley
Monday: 25% off fresh produce
Friday: Mums and bubs group, with free craft and book readings for the little ones
Saturday: Family day, kids can pick their own produce
Sunday: Live music and farm tours at 1pm, adults $15, children free.