A CHANGE

This year’s de­li­cious. Pro­duce Awards re­vealed a new wave of young pro­duc­ers choos­ing a ru­ral life over the city lights, driven by a love of food and an old-fash­ioned fo­cus on qual­ity over quan­tity, writes SHAN­NON HAR­LEY.

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The maker move­ment, a re­turn to old-fash­ioned crafts­man­ship, has led to a re­vival of ‘grand­par­ent skills’ and trades from a gen­tler era – every­thing from cheese­mak­ing and pick­ling in the kitchen to cul­ti­vat­ing heir­loom fruit and veg­eta­bles and bee­keep­ing in the gar­den. Even knit­ting and knife-mak­ing are on the rise.

This year’s de­li­cious. Pro­duce Awards un­earthed a new gen­er­a­tion of treechang­ers who are swap­ping the city lights for life on the land. Now in their 13th year, the awards recog­nise farm­ers and ar­ti­sans pro­duc­ing top-qual­ity sus­tain­able, eth­i­cal and, of course, de­li­cious food. There’s never been a short­age of in­spir­ing pro­duc­ers, but the trend this year is the rise of non­gener­a­tional farm­ers jump­ing the fence to join the veter­ans. Their toil, spirit in the face of the fickle el­e­ments – such as the cur­rent drought plagu­ing New South Wales, Queens­land and parts of Vic­to­ria – and their in­no­va­tion in­flu­ence how and what we eat, from in­tro­duc­ing new in­gre­di­ents to our home reper­toire (re­mem­ber when no one had heard of buf­falo moz­zarella or heir­loom toma­toes?) to in­spir­ing chefs.

From chefs-turned-farm­ers to a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist with a pas­sion for an­cient grains, a city ar­chi­tect re­turn­ing to the fam­ily pig­gery and two for­mer navy em­ploy­ees who have cre­ated one of the few brands of Aus­tralian miso, we meet some of the brave souls who have swapped av­o­cado on toast for early starts and mud-splat­tered RMS.

GROW­ING GAINS

A theme among the new gen­er­a­tion of grow­ers is find­ing cus­tomers among lead­ing restau­rants. One such cou­ple is Erika Wat­son and Hay­den Druce, who met while study­ing hor­ti­cul­tural sci­ence at Syd­ney Univer­sity. Their Epi­curean Har­vest started in the back­yard of a rental cot­tage in the Blue Moun­tains in 2013. Now they sup­ply seven lo­cal restau­rants, one in Wol­lon­gong and 22 in Syd­ney with the or­ganic pro­duce they grow on their 48-hectare plot, such as ed­i­ble flow­ers and heir­loom veg­eta­bles cul­ti­vated spe­cially for the likes of Paper­bird, Fred’s, Es­ter, Bent­ley and Fire­door.

New­cas­tle Greens, mean­while, was cre­ated when Dy­lan Ab­doo and Elle Green, both with back­grounds in hospi­tal­ity in Syd­ney, re­lo­cated to New­cas­tle to es­cape the high cost of big-city liv­ing. While they sup­ply some of the best restau­rants across the state, in­clud­ing Quay and Ben­ne­long – chef Peter Gil­more ap­proached the pair in search of spe­cialty pro­duce – along with Ice­bergs, Lumi and Tet­suya’s among oth­ers in Syd­ney, and Muse Din­ing in the Hunter Val­ley, the jour­ney to the top was not as per­fect as their prized mi­cro-greens, ed­i­ble flow­ers and heir­loom veg­eta­bles.

With no for­mal hor­ti­cul­tural train­ing, Green ran the busi­ness for the first three years while the cou­ple lived on Ab­doo’s cheff­ing wage. “We started with noth­ing, then got enough money to build a poly­tun­nel, then moved onto a big­ger plot of land and learnt about ir­ri­ga­tion,” he says. “The busi­ness grew un­til even­tu­ally I could leave the kitchen and join Elle.”

The cou­ple have a busy cy­cle, start­ing with Satur­day when they send out their pro­duce list to around 90 restau­rants and cafés, and har­vest­ing, pack­ing and de­liv­er­ing through­out the week.

Ab­doo and Green have around 5000 mi­cro-herbs grow­ing on their half-hectare plot at any one time, along with var­i­ous leaves, heir­loom veg­eta­bles and snap greens in­clud­ing three Calvin Lam­born va­ri­eties that Green dis­cov­ered on In­sta­gram and sourced from the leg­endary Idaho farmer (now de­ceased) who in­vented the orig­i­nal su­gar snap pea in 1979.

“Every day is full-on and we haven’t had a hol­i­day in six years, but we love it,” the cou­ple chime over the phone in uni­son. Grow­ing new in­gre­di­ents with the sup­port of top chefs mo­ti­vates them to keep go­ing, they say, and their links with the in­dus­try from their past life have helped im­mensely be­cause they know what chefs want.

BACK TO ROOTS

Toowoomba’s Schultz Fam­ily Farms has a his­tory that goes back to 1894, but it wasn’t un­til Vaughn Schultz re­turned with his wife, Jade, to join his fa­ther on the land af­ter a stint in the big smoke as an ar­chi­tect that it be­came syn­ony­mous with fine din­ing. Fol­low­ing a chance meet­ing with Ben Wil­liamson of Ger­ard’s Bistro, who at the time was try­ing to source lo­cal eth­i­cally raised pork, the pig-rear­ing op­er­a­tion was re­born. Now the likes of Jake Ni­col­son at Black­bird and Philip John­son at E’cco Bistro in Bris­bane, and Monty Kolu­drovic at The Dol­phin in Syd­ney, to name a few, are cus­tomers.

“Meet­ing my fu­ture wife and think­ing of start­ing a fam­ily was the cat­a­lyst to move back,” Schultz says. “We both share an at­ti­tude about sim­pler and in­de­pen­dent liv­ing, and I al­ways had in the back of my mind

an obli­ga­tion to con­tinue fam­ily tra­di­tion and learn from Dad.”

While Schultz had farm­ing in his veins, it’s a mas­sive learn­ing curve for some­one who comes from a dif­fer­ent back­ground. “You have to have a pi­o­neer­ing at­ti­tude, ac­cept loss and not lament what you can’t con­trol,” he points out. “Say­ing that, there’s an im­mense sat­is­fac­tion in watch­ing some­thing cre­ated with your hands re­leased in mar­ket.”

Roger Duggan, who comes from a farm­ing fam­ily in Western Aus­tralia’s New Norcia, had an epiphany when he ate black bar­ley for the first time at a friend’s restau­rant. The ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist hasn’t left his day job yet, but he re­turned to his fam­ily plot to turn his hand to grow­ing the an­cient grain. It wasn’t the move that threw up curve balls, how­ever; it was the ef­fort to source enough grain to grow a vi­able crop. Af­ter lengthy re­search and many calls and emails, he scraped to­gether 160 grams from a few univer­sity seed banks. Now in his third year of grow­ing from this scant amount, he hopes to sell his first har­vest this year. Two chefs who will be ea­ger for some of the black gold are Mel­bourne chef and judge An­drew Mccon­nell and Pro­duce Awards pa­tron Mag­gie Beer, who shares a love of this nutty, earthy grain and en­cour­aged Duggan to en­ter into this year’s awards.

CHANG­ING TACK

A love of fer­ment­ing and good food in­spired navy of­fi­cers Chris and Mea­gan de Bono to make an all-aus­tralian miso with or­ganic and bio­dy­namic in­gre­di­ents, some­thing no one was do­ing on a large scale. Only seven months af­ter launch­ing Meru Miso, made from bio­dy­namic soy­beans, or­ganic chickpeas and koji cul­ture grown on bio­dy­namic rice, the need for more space led the pair to quit Mel­bourne for Launce­s­ton, Mea­gan’s home town.

“The tree change was es­sen­tial for our busi­ness as it meant re­duced over­heads com­pared with stay­ing in Mel­bourne,” says Chris.

While they’re not ex­actly off the grid, the only down­side of the move, say the cou­ple, is the lack of din­ing op­tions on a Mon­day night, a first-world prob­lem far out­weighed by the grass-roots in­volve­ment that comes with be­ing part of a smaller com­mu­nity.

First-gen­er­a­tion farm­ers Si­mon Car­roll and Kelly Ea­ton of Lit­tle Hill Farm were driven by their de­sire to pro­duce eth­i­cal food when they be­gan rear­ing Joyce’s Gold heritage chick­ens in the Hunter Val­ley. “We wanted to grow our own food, live more sus­tain­ably and cre­ate a busi­ness that we were pas­sion­ate about. We just needed to find a prop­erty of our own,” says Ea­ton.

Their pas­sion flour­ished into a busi­ness af­ter the cou­ple bought a farm in­land from New­cas­tle five years ago – a “blank can­vas with no fences, build­ings, wa­ter or power” – with the be­lief other peo­ple shared this de­sire.

“Some days farm­ing seems like one prob­lem-solv­ing chal­lenge af­ter an­other, but with every mis­take or mi­nor catas­tro­phe comes a man­age­ment or in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ment that adds to our busi­ness’s strength and re­silience,” she says. “Our days can be long and ar­du­ous, but they’re al­ways en­joy­able and highly re­ward­ing.”

It takes great courage for treechang­ers to move to ru­ral ar­eas to try some­thing new, but the ben­e­fits can be far-reach­ing. They in­ject fresh lifeblood into small com­mu­ni­ties, help pre­serve bio­di­ver­sity and pro­mote an­i­mal wel­fare and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. Vaughn Schultz has some heart­en­ing ad­vice for any­one con­sid­er­ing such a move.

“I would en­cour­age any­one with the op­tion to take the plunge into ru­ral life,” he says. “It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent Aus­tralia out­side the ma­jor cities, and with the in­crease in world pop­u­la­tion, food se­cu­rity is ex­tremely im­por­tant. The prospects for both tra­di­tional or in­no­va­tive agri­cul­ture are ex­cel­lent.” The win­ners of the de­li­cious. Pro­duce Awards, pre­sented in part­ner­ship with Miele, will be an­nounced to­mor­row evening at QT Syd­ney and de­li­cious.com.au.

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