Words Tanya Snelling


From war-torn poverty to sugar prosperity, discover the story of three families who set out from war-torn Europe in the hope of a better life.

Setting sail for Australia in the 1920s, the Leonardi, DiPalma and Puglisi families left the post-war poverty of Sicily and Naples with little more than self-belief, a will to work and the buzz of economic opportunities in Australia ringing in their ears. They were bound for the little-known town of Mossman in Far North Queensland which, at the time, was on the cusp of major sugar-related expansion.

As fate would have it, these men were destined to sow the seeds of a modern farming dynasty that continues to build on their affinity for the land, ability to see and seize an opportunity, and willingness to innovate to foster growth and the future of the sugar industry.

In time, the Puglisi and DiPalma families were farming neighbours, and more when romance blossomed between shy Mary DiPalma, granddaughter of patriarch Paolo Leonardi, and Renaldo Puglisi, aka Angelo, the charming boy next door.  The tragic death of Mary’s only brother Albert as a young man saw the running of the DiPalma sugarcane farm pass to Mary and Angelo.

The tragic death of Mary’s only brother Albert as a young man saw the running of the DiPalma sugarcane farm pass to Mary and Angelo.

The heritage of the Leonardi, DiPalma and Puglisi forebears is combined under the Puglisi Farming label, a successful diversified family enterprise based around sugar, cocoa and koalas. Today it has 188 hectares under crops. Of this, 2ha are leased to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, where it grows three eucalypt species to feed koalas across its tourism ventures. Puglisi Farming provides maintenance, pruning and mowing. A further 2ha is planted with 1800 cocoa trees that are harvested for a growing sustainable market. The rest of the cropping land is under sugarcane.

Angelo senior runs the operation with his son, fourth generation farmer Gerard, a forward thinking man in his forties. Gerard is proud of his heritage, well aware of the toil and sacrifice it has taken and the effects of rising costs and blindside events in farming that easily chomp into the sweet spot of profit margins.

Best practice and working smarter underscore Puglisi Farming’s ethos in the fertile Whyanbeel valley at Miallo, just north of the administrative hub of Douglas Shire. Like their forebears, they keep a weather eye out for diversification, innovation and moving with the times while being quick to pull the belt in when things get tight.

As his father transitions towards retirement, Gerard hopes his son, Angelo junior, who helps on weekends, will be the fifth generation farmer. Like Gerard, who completed a boilermaker trade at Mossman sugar mill, Angelo junior pursues a trade in town as a small engine mechanic apprentice – another useful skill on the land.

Today, Gerard is a shareholder and director of the cane grower-owned Far Northern Milling, formerly the Mossman Mill, a director of Australian Cane Farmers Association and director of Mossman Agricultural Services. He has a swag of awards recognising his achievements as a young farmer, a diversification farmer and an innovative industry leader. “We were one of the first six farms that came on board to give cocoa a go back in 2006 after Cadbury’s and the Department of Primary Industries did trials in northern Australia in the late 1990s,” Gerard says.

Their cocoa activities now include husbanding the trees and harvesting the cocoa pods, which are used to make Local Cocoa chocolate.

“It’s labour intensive and we do it as a family operation – every two weeks between April and December we dodge the green ants and harvest the pods. They are processed in Cairns and the cocoa nibs sent to Belgian Delights on the Gold Coast who craft it into Local Cocoa chocolate bars,” he says.

As a director of Far Northern Milling, Gerard continues to look at diversification to minimise the vulnerability of being 100 percent reliant on the raw sugar market. “There are 101 products that could probably be made from sugar. At the moment we are looking at an alternative product that goes into soy sauce,” he said.

Gerard muses on the differences in farming today: “Back in the day 134 farmers supplied the mill, now 62-65 people look after that land and it will probably be down to 25 in a few years. You need to get bigger or get out and mechanisation has helped to achieve this. In the old days we had four farms and four to five people worked the main farm, now Dad and I look after two to three times that. What took 15 people a full day to harvest by hand, a commercial cane harvester can do in one hour.

“Our forebears came here to make a better life for themselves and they succeeded. They had hard times like we are going through but they had different pressures. The kids had to walk miles to school, and the women had to carry water to their homes and wash dirty clothes in the river.

“The old people were good gardeners and our farms have always been among the highest producers. We have adopted modern farming practices, including using GPS for minimal tillage to reduce run off and disturbance to soil microbes. We were one of the first to go to the Smart Cane program, a sugar industry initiative, which is a tick of approval that we are doing everything right in terms of the environment, including the Great Barrier Reef.

“We butt right up to the Daintree Rainforest, where it wraps around Mossman, and the Whyanbeel River runs through our farm. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep the environment clean and pristine.”

Gerard weighs up his life as a farmer today: “It’s good being your own boss and growing food for people (and koalas), even though sometimes sugar gets a bad rap. It’s good having the flexibility and the lifestyle. There are good times and bad – input costs are adding extra pressures, particularly the energy side of things.”

A legacy and tribute to his pioneering family is the Leonardi-DiPalma bridge over the Whyanbeel River that flows through the family farm, a reminder of the marriage of his grandparents Elda Leonardi and Sam DiPalma. The family has also donated Gerard’s grandmother’s pasta machine to the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort in Port Douglas, where it is displayed in the restaurant.

The Douglas Shire’s Italian heritage is celebrated at the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort’s monthly shared Italian Feast where tables are loaded with delights from Executive Chef Belinda Tuckwell to give locals and visitors a taste of cuisine from various regions of Italy. There is also a nightly a la carte Italian menu option outside this signature event.