A groundswell for ethical, organic and premium food has seen Tasmania become a hot spot for people wanting change in their world.
Finance professionals are buying rundown farms and learning about the land on a whim, while pharmacists are switching drugs for sheep, dispensing hay instead of pill prescriptions.
Top chef’s arrive to work with Tasmania’s outstanding local produce, and national and international tourists start arriving to taste the hype.
2018 Tasmanian Senior Australian of the Year Tony Scherer is a lifelong advocate for small-scale food production, is an influential force in the organic food industry, and has arguably had a hand in bringing Tasmanian produce to attention.
More than 30 years ago Mr Scherer, from Santa Cruz in California, came to Tasmania with passionate ideals about ethical and organic farming.
After developing food relationships with top restaurants in his home town, Scherer moved to Tasmania and co-founded the first organic vineyard Frogmore Creek Vineyard in 1999, now owned by Jansz.
He continued to develop organic composting methods and biological fertilizers, having helped start Ocean Organics in the US and now Renew in Tasmania.
Then in 1995 he co-founded Sprout a not-for-profit organisation that offered first-hand knowledge, experience and support to small-scale farmers.
The completely volunteer-run organisation is taking action to support good food and great ideas, to facilitate growth of sustainable farming practices, and develop a natural, seasonal, premium food culture.
Sprout general manager Jennifer Robinson said Mr Scherer was recognised for his contribution to the Tasmanian agricultural industry.
Sprout saw that Tasmania had an opportunity to do organic, small-scale farming really well, and for this type of farming to bolster our local community and develop a food culture in this state.
She said he still continues to encourage and mentor small-scale farmers, many of whom are new hobby farmers moving here to escape the rat race.
But white collar finance professionals turned hobby farmers are just some of the types of people that Sprout was designed to assist.
"Sprout saw that Tassie had a wonderful opportunity to do organic, small-scale farming really well, and for this type of farming to really bolster our local community and develop a food culture in this state," Mrs Robinson said.
"They also saw that there wasn't a lot of support out there for small scale agriculture. They saw that people who wanted to farm in this way didn't have support networks, or had gaps in their knowledge," she said.
"These people had the passion and keenness to do it, but they didn't know who to turn to for help. Some of them have fantastic off-farm skills and know absolutely nothing about soil health, others have been farming for generations but have not set a foot into social media.”
In 2015 the Sprout Producers Program was launched which sees several Tasmanian small-scale producers receive a 12-month $4000 scholarship each year.
Some of the past recipients have included Lilydale’s blueberry producer Three Peaks Organics and Angus beef producer Summerlea Farm, saffron producer Campo De Flori, and award winning olive producer Glendale Olives, of White Hills.
This year four Northern producers include Fork It Farm, Langdale Farm, Old Forest Vale Farm and Wilmores Bluff.
“There is a breadth of business types that have come through the program – market growers, highland beef farmers, Christmas tree farmers, nurseries. The success comes from seeing those businesses still running successfully five years later,” Mrs Robinson said.
“Anyone who runs a small business knows it is a difficult thing, and to then have mother nature thrown into that makes can make for challenging times.”
Recipients undertake educational units, get access to farming and small business mentors, and develop contacts and customer networks in the industry.
The help ranges from information and training on soil health, weed management and animal husbandry, to off-farm topics such as value-adding, marketing, social media, freight and export.
“It is incredibly important to have this added support network. A lot of people in agriculture find themselves in a small community but often feeling isolated in terms of their journey as a small farming business,” she said.
“Many of our producers are going through a lot of change, setting up a business, learning how to farm, learning to deal with the challenges that mother nature throws at them throughout the year.”
Three years ago Anthony Bratt and his partner Theresa Davis bought land in Cressy, which included an original homestead built in 1860 and a semi-neglected truffle farm of 300 trees.
Two people with finance backgrounds starting-out again in the agricultural and tourism fields, driven by an urge to do something different.
"After working in finance for twenty years it was time for us to do something that was better for the soul," Mr Bratt said.
"We saw an opportunity ... we saw some niche markets that we could realistically get into."
They are now running Old Forest Vale Farm, growing specialty garlic, re-etablishing the truffle farm, and running an agri-tourism Air BNB from their self-renovated homestead.
Mr Bratt said it has been an eye-opening but rewarding experience, where lows can be offset by the highs.
"In our garlic production we can't produce enough," he said.
"We're a week away from harvesting but it is fair to say that we could have sold it twice already. We're going to have produced around 600 to 700 kilograms this year and next year we've leased some additional land and are hoping to grow ten tonne."
This garlic has led to repeat customers for the Old Forest Vale farmers, who have already been approached by restaurants for their quality, local produce.
"It gives you a great sense of satisfaction to truly know that the effort that you put in comes out at the other end,” he said.
“At this point there is no financial reason to do this, it is purely because this is what we want to do, and when we see people coming back for repeat orders that is really satisfying, seeing the enjoyment that it gives to other people."
For the truffle farm, rewards are taking a little longer than expected.
"For the trufflery its all about soil management. We are trying to reinvigorate something that had been neglected for well on ten years to get it producing again, so we have done a lot of soil work, tree pruning, and installed new irrigation systems," he said.
"You do all those things but still don't know if it will succeed or even if you’ll have somewhere to sell your product at the end ... this is a massive leap of faith."
It is these types of leaps where Sprout exist to help prevent the fall.
“We need help with the agricultural skills, and while we are fine on the business side we are hoping to track down a mentor in the 2018 program for some coaching,” he said.
“This support is absolutely vital.”
Tasmanian born Mandy and Carl Cooper, who had been living in New South Wales, also purchased a farm three year ago, some 100 acres in Rowella, near the Tamar River, amidst the North’s fertile wine region.
Wilmores Bluff is their small-scale farming project, an escape from 20 years in pharmacy, and a step towards retirement.
"We bought a sheep farm, as you do," Mrs Cooper said.
"It was just time for us to come back to Tassie. We had worked with medications and drugs for years but decided that food was the answer to good health. It was a lifestyle choice for us, to go back and grow some food."
She said farming was vastly different from their previous occupation, and while they had owned a seven-acre lifestyle farm with a “few alpacas and donkeys”, they experienced a steep learning curve when they first arrived at Wilmores Bluff.
"I had to realise that if you have livestock you also have deadstock. We were very upset when the first few animals died, and it took a bit of getting used to. In pharmacy it is black and white, there is right or wrong, and every prescription must be exactly right," she said.
"With farming there are shades of grey and you do the best that you can, by the farm that you have, and the animals that you've got."
The Coopers have spent the past three years building up livestock numbers and getting on top of farm management.
They introduced the Tasmanian Cormo breed of sheep into their stock, which have superfine merino in their bloodlines, and have now got a mixture of Cormos and cross-breeds.
"We have about 1200 breeding ewes and currently about 1000 lambs so we are getting to enough capacity to be able to supply direct," he said.
"We've got into a position where we have the right stock, the fences and irrigation are fixed, now we can concentrate on making it more productive and cost effective."
The Coopers achieved all this while also working with the University of Tasmania’s Rural Health School, but have recently decided to increase their focus on the farm.
“We want to see if we can develop our farm as a brand, to put our lamb in boxes to be sold direct to consumer, and also see if we can do something with our wool,” Mrs Cooper said.
“I’m almost a wool classer, with a Certificate 4 from Tafe, and we’ve been shearing the last few days. We want to investigate garments, perhaps starting off with something like ponchos or baby blankets, something that is Tasmanian that we can sell,” she said.
“We have worked out the farming side of things and are now at that stage where we want to see what happens next. That is why we’re at Sprout.”
Mr Cooper added that people were looking for premium quality product.
“The people in the city are looking for something better than what they get now,” he said.
“We want to do all the packaging and processing and then supply that premium quality product direct to them.”
The couple’s drive to develop their own brand is exactly what Tasmania needs, to add to is ever-growing mix of food products.
Mrs Robinson said such action was imperative if Tasmania’s reputation as a gourmet foodie location was to continue to prosper and grow.
"The government and the Tourism and Hospitality Association are keen to see more local produce in kitchens commercially across the state and if they want to see that, we need to see more people farming on this small-scale," she said.
"For many restaurant owners and chefs in the kitchen, really great, local produce is what they want to work with, and we are seeing a definite growth in the interest of such produce generally.”
She said the benefits were numerous, but an added bonus was the symbotic relations that developed between chefs and farmers.
"A farmer learns about what works in the kitchen, plating considerations and pricing per dish while the chef can learn about rotation of crops, and planning and planting times of crops for particular dishes,” she said.
Ms X said the benefits of such a relationship could also flow to consumers.
“We all need to eat and we all need to learn about where our food comes from. We have forgotten about the knowledge, expertise and hard work that goes into farming and growing food,” she said.
“A connection with your small farming industry will bring incredible benefits for individuals and families...my daughter, for instance, knows how to pick olives for olive oil, knows where it came from when she uses it in the kitchen and has that concept in her mind about the hard work put in to make the olive trees grow.
“It doesn’t just appear magically on a shelf in a supermarket, and that connection with food for future generations is really important. That is why we need people doing these incredibly hard farming jobs, and we need to support them as a community.”
This support, she said, is important for the success of a food-branded Tasmania.
"If Tasmania wants to maintain its reputation in providing visitors and locals with genuine, local food experiences then we need to ensure that it is underpinned by support for the actual small scale producers,” she said.
“These small farms are not in it to make a million dollars, they are in it to contribute and see benefits for the environment, their farms, the soil, their animals, to contribute to their local community and the ongoing sustainability in this state.
“Their method and passion towards that sort of farming is what we like to advocate for, it is what we like to see.”