Seeds of love grow a revolution
SIMPLICITY means different things to different people. For lifelong vegetable grower Tony Scherer living simply, connected to the earth and the seasons, is the most natural thing in the world.
"All he has ever wanted to be is a farmer," says partner Joyce of the 2018 Tasmanian Senior Australian of the Year. "And he has never wavered in his commitment to organics. It gives him such delight to replay a compliment he's had on his cabbage."
Raising crops for top Hobart restaurants and mentoring growers through Sprout Tasmania, a not-for profit organisation he co-founded seven years ago, occupies most of 76-year-old Scherer's time. "It is his dream and it brings him great joy," says Joyce, who works in the public service to provide the couple with a stable income. "I'm thrilled to be a spectator."
The organic farming pioneer, who moved from California to Australia in 1989, has been officially recognised in this year's awards for his contribution to sustainable farming and viticulture. The Senior Australian of the Year Award pays tribute to Australians aged 65 and over who continue to achieve and give back to the community. The honour could have been invented for this giver and gentle guru.
Sprout co-founder Dr Alice Percy, 37, was doing her PhD on organic viticulture when she met Scherer 14 years ago. At that time he co-owned Frogmore Creek Winery and spent most of his time tending its grapevines. Opening in 1999, it was Tasmania's first certified organic vineyard. "I used to get up at 4am and spray my organic fungicides onto his farm," says Percy, who is now assistant director of trade and international relations at the Department of State Growth. "For two years, he was always there at sunrise to greet me. I did all my research trials on his property, which meant he had to let disease into his farm to test the products. That took a lot of trust."
For Agrarian Kitchen chef Rodney Dunn, Scherer is an inspirational figure. "Tony is the man I want to be when I grow up," says Dunn. "He will live to 120, that guy. He is just so positive about everything, so exuberant, and he puts such energy into what he does. He's not like 'I'm in my 70s, I'm in the twilight of my years'. He's full-on and full of ideas. Talk to him about ideas of produce and he has the energy and attitude of a 20-year-old."
Dunn grows vegetables for the cookery school and restaurant he co-runs with wife Severine in the Derwent Valley, but he also relies on Scherer's harvest for his acclaimed new eatery. "We get stuff from him every week because we don't have enough in our garden," says Dunn.
It gives the pair a chance to touch base regularly, with Scherer making many deliveries himself and revelling in seeing and sampling what the chefs are doing with his produce. Just last Saturday he made an extra run over with a batch of green garlic because the eatery had run out.
What a lot of people don't see, says Dunn, is the encouragement Scherer gives to others behind the scenes. "If you want to grow food there is no better person to learn from, but he is so unassuming. Growing produce for [trailblazing paddock to plate restaurateur] Alice Waters in the 1980s is amazing and to have him in Tasmania is amazing."
Scherer is sitting in the afternoon sun outside his shed at his 2ha market garden at Rocky Tops Farm, Penna, just outside the Coal River Valley. The hilly 80ha property runs behind the original Frogmore Creek Vineyard, which is now owned by sparkling winemaker Jansz. Below us dense heads of lustrous cabbage - savoy, sugar-loaf, wombok, green and red - seem to expand before our eyes. Then there is his sought-after garlic. Lettuce including radicchio are out of sight but ripe for picking in covered beds. Beneath the rich clayey dolomite earth, fed to the hilt with compost, radishes and turnips are taking shape. In his greenhouse eggplant, cucumber, tomato and melon seedlings are sprouting and he will soon plant them out. By January, he will be cycling back to winter staples such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
Today is a typical Tuesday and with the help of a young chef, he has already picked cabbage for Franklin, Tom McHugos, The Glasshouse, Peacock and Jones and Fico restaurants. They will harvest again on Thursday, and again on Saturday morning if the chefs' supplies are low. "That vegetable that was in the ground at noon today is in the restaurant tonight," he says.
In his heavy work boots and with his strong hands at rest, Scherer looks every inch a farmer at repose in his chair. But a stodgy old cropper he is not. There's a remarkable lightness about him, part litheness, part hope; he seems not so much worn down by his work as uplifted. It is as if - imagine this - he has been working with nature rather than against it all this time.
He's not always ebullient, Joyce confides. "Yesterday when I left for work, it was raining horizontally and he didn't know how he'd get everything picked that he needed to. It can be thankless work when mice take bites out of the tops of his beets, and when drought hits and he doesn't have enough water. [At the end of] lots of days he's in the corner, filthy dirty, looking exhausted."
At those times, she can't help reminding him of his age. "I've watched him falling off a ladder," she says. "There are lots of downsides, but he loves it."
This afternoon, Scherer is perhaps especially chipper because he has tracked down a circa 1974 cultivator tractor that promises to transform his days. Until now, he and his small crew of part-timers and volunteers have been cultivating all the beds with a vintage wheel hoe. He estimates he pushed it 62km over 25 beds of garlic last season.
Inside the shed, he admires the cultivating bar he will fit to the tractor, which is coming down from Griffith in the fruit-growing Riverina district of southwestern NSW. "You are sitting on the tractor and it's right underneath you so you can watch it work," he says, sounding very pleased.
Scherer knows he is not reinventing the wheel. The need for the old tractor attests to that. What he is doing is helping save a way of life and preserve a way of growing food that has been all but swept away by half a century of industrial agriculture. "We are trying to reintroduce improved older technology that allows you to grow things without using chemicals."
Big companies stopped making cultivator tractors when selective herbicides were developed decades ago, with chemical sprays replacing much of the labour and care that had always gone into growing.
"In the 1970s in California if you farmed vegetables, you cultivated every row with a tractor," says Scherer. "Whether you had one acre or 15,000 acres, that's how you did it."
As industrial agriculture started taking over in the 1980s, Scherer moved further away from it, committing himself to environmentally sustainable practices.
For numerous reasons, he says, Tasmania is a perfect place for small-scale organic food farming. It goes beyond the state's ideal growing conditions and feeds straight into the culture to which we are passionately attached, and which visitors to the state are now able to tap into through their dining experiences.
We need more small-scale commercial growers, though, he says, to feed the growing demand for premium produce. That's where Sprout Tasmania comes in. Scherer and Percy set up the grassroots group in 2011 to support the state's start-up and expanding producers. Its mantra is "growing good". Participants in Sprout's year-long program are mentored in everything from growing to marketing and finance. Several $4000 scholarships are offered annually.
"One of the reasons we started Sprout was to mentor people in growing techniques that were lost," says Scherer. "The fact I was there when that was happening in California in the 1970s is pretty advantageous because I remember how to do it."
One of his key drivers is the fear that "people are losing sight of what food is", inured to substandard quality by a long-term diet of processed food and fruit and vegetables grown for transportability and shelf life rather than flavour. Localism provides many answers, he suggests. "One of the things we talked about when starting Sprout was not so much changing the food culture but trying to get people to buy into a local food system."
So far Sprout has helped grow about 30 small enterprises, from olive oil to beef, mushrooms and snails. Demand from restaurants, at markets and in home-delivered food boxes is growing. "When we started Sprout, I thought if we could get 50 good growers, we'd be travelling well," says Scherer. But we need a thousand."
Are the growers making a buck though? "Some of them certainly are," he says. "You are not going to get rich. I'm the first to admit that."
It's not about that.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, Scherer started growing and selling produce when seven years old. Working as a cattle feeder and crop harvester for a big operation in high school, he studied horticulture at university, working part-time in plant nurseries before launching a landscaping business. Ten years later he bought his first small farm and started growing vegetables conventionally. Who knows what might have happened next in a different era? But this was the late 1970s and by the time the 1980s rolled in, Scherer had been willingly co-opted into a food revolution fomenting on his home turf. At the centre of it was a clutch of San Francisco cafes, most famously Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, who embraced provenance by recognising producers on its menus. Between growing for such restaurants and selling at markets, Scherer found his place in the short-food-chain movement.
He left the US in the late 1980s, heading to Western Australia where he grew citrus and was joined by his partner Joyce and their son Jared. When he and business partner Jack Kidwiler sold that business and started looking for an ideal location to establish an organic vineyard, Tasmania came onto his radar.
Now, 40 years later, life is coming full circle as he finds himself growing vegetables for restaurants once more. It began with garlic, then he branched into a few heirloom vegetables.
"Restaurants would say can you grow a bit of this and that," he remembers. "Last year we grew one bed of cabbage and people loved it, but chefs said the only problem was it didn't fit on the plate, so it's smaller this year. We need to be able to react to chefs' wants and needs. That's what we are trying to do and we are having some success. Restaurants are going crazy - we never have enough to give them, even in summer."
He is excited by the groundswell of support, not just for his produce, but for the whole resurgent small-grower movement that's gathering pace in Tasmania and elsewhere. "I think we are at a critical point right now," he says. "I love it. It shakes things up. The crossroads is still edgy in my brain. It could fall apart, but the momentum is there. I see people converting from the standard way they eat, thinking more about their health. People are going to farmers' markets, they are buying boxed vegetables every week, places like the Hill St Grocer want local vegetables. The market is growing and we need more good growers."
Scherer's first Tasmanian chef collaboration was with Luke Burgess, who co-launched Hobart's trailblazing Garagistes in 2010. The restaurant burned short and bright, closing a few years ago, but is remembered as Tasmania's answer to Copenhagen's Noma, with an adventurous cooking style using freshly harvested produce from farmers and fishers.
Now a freelance chef and photographer, Burgess has been living with Scherer and Joyce this year in the straw bale home the couple built atop Rocky Top Farm, overlooking Frederick Henry Bay, 12 years ago. Later this month, Burgess will launch a series of bespoke communal Sunday lunches at the home. If the concept pans out as well as Scherer and Joyce envision, it may turn out to be the birth of a micro pop-up restaurant featuring their produce.
Their friendship began when the chef was looking for land on which to grow. Scherer offered a patch of his own. "He gave me a plot [at Rocky Top Farm] to work on, but it just got so busy at the restaurant we were pretty much cultivating weeds and we couldn't keep on top of the role of growing vegetables."
What it did do successfully was highlight the volume a kitchen garden growing for a restaurant would need. Over time, Scherer began to fill the breach. "He would grow anything we requested," says Burgess. "He had no inhibitions to trying anything, which was really fantastic.
"I think the greatest kick Tony gets is dropping his produce off to a restaurant and eating the food and seeing what someone does with it. It continually blows his mind. And he's continually in love with the notion of being involved in the food cycle. It is something he is deeply passionate about.
"I think he is a really good example of the way things accumulate in your life: the skills you acquire, the experience you have and how relevant you can be at any stage of your life based on that … His greatest gift is to bring the next generation through in a really inclusive and nurturing way. He has an ability to make you feel as if you are part of something bigger."
To feel his life coming full circle and be honoured for his abiding part in sharing his knowledge means the world to Scherer. He says he was shocked when awarded the Australia Day honour. And he is overcome by emotion now just talking about it.
"It was the most wonderful thing. When I got up there [on stage to accept it] I thought 'what a country, how can they give this award to an ex-hippie organic farmer from Santa Cruz'. It would never have happened in America. No way."
The first Luke Burgess Rocky Top Farm lunch will be held on October 20, with each event limited to eight guests. (Bookings at rockytopsfarms.com). Tasmanian Seniors week is on October 15-21. visit http://www.cotatas.org.au or phone 62 31 32 65