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.
A new wave of young producers are choosing rural life over city lights, writes Shannon Harvey.
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 tree-changers 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 non-generational 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.
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.
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.