From farming in California to a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania »
Tony Scherer shares his story with Helen Hayward in For the Love of Food
Contributed articles and stories
For the Love of Food is a collection of stories and recipes from 41 Tasmanian food professionals, some famous and others simply quiet achievers brought together in one thoughtful book by Helen Hayward. Both the authour and her subjects and are part of food a scene that is alive and exciting on all levels, literally from the ground up.
Tony Scherer is probably best known for starting Frogmore Creek Wines and more recently as a founder of Sprout Tasmania. This is Tony's tale from large scale vegetable farming in the USA to a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania
Early beginnings, USA:
Tony Scherer, an American-born farmer and winemaker, started Frogmore Creek, Tasmania’s only biodynamic vineyard, in 1999. Along with Alice Percy he is the founder of Sprout Tasmania – an organisation that seeks to teach the broader community sustainable farming practices.
Tony Scherer grew up in a small rural development in California, surrounded by 4000-5000 acre cattle ranches. Unlike his father, who escaped the family farm to become a corporate accountant, Tony couldn’t wait to get an after-school job feeding cattle with a local farmer. By the time he was at high school he was helping harvest at Boskovich Farms, a large-scale vegetable grower that sold produce to Los Angeles.
With no family farm of his own, Tony had to be a bit clever about how to get onto the land. At first, studying horticulture at university, he worked in plant nurseries. Then on graduating he started a landscape contracting business in which, over ten years, he landscaped everything from golf courses to pop duo Sonny and Cher’s backyard.
His break came in 1973, when he and his partner bought a small farm in Santa Cruz. At first they grew only what their neighbours grew – mixed vegetables and berries. Knowing nothing about organics, Tony sprayed the same chemicals on his crops that his neighbours used – even though he was always getting sick.
The ground shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Food Revolution rolled across the West Coast – giving rise, in San Francisco alone, to Chez Panisse, Zuni Cafe, the 4th Street Grill and Greens at Fort Mason. These were the first cafes to introduce what became known as Californian cuisine. This was not so much a style of cooking as a way of acknowledging farmers, fishermen and cheesemakers by putting their name on the menu next to various dishes.
All at once there was a market for organically grown produce – and with it a growing awareness that small-scale, locally grown seasonal produce wins as much on how it tastes in the mouth, as what it puts back into the soil.
Tony’s shift away from conventional farming was nonetheless gradual. Instead of picking up the phone to call a distributor as his crops came into season, cafes and restaurants started calling him direct. Having always sold to middlemen, Tony began a steep learning curve of finding out what chefs – as opposed to supermarket managers – actually wanted. And it wasn’t lettuces the size of netballs. It was small, neat heads of lettuces and teenage bok choy – no bigger.
Around this time Tony got to know a neighbour, an eccentric older farmer who planted according to the moon and the prevailing winds. Curious as to what this farmer might say about his green beans – which grew a blue mould no matter what fungicides he used – Tony paid him a visit. Plant your rows of beans into the wind, the farmer suggested, so that when the winds come they act as your friend. Tony was sceptical at first. But to his surprise it worked.
'Tomato gassing' and rodent heaven:
In order to convey the scale of what is wrong with modern industrial farming practices, Tony tells me what he calls his ‘tomato-gassing’ story.
Tony’s best friend, Bud Tucker, had the good fortune to farm a large flood plain with 6 metres of rich topsoil, in California’s San Fernando Valley. While they were growing up, both boys spent a lot of time helping out on this farm. Over the years Tony watched the tomato industry go from a hand-picked seasonal enterprise servicing fresh and processing markets, to a mechanised harvest that dropped tomatoes onto a conveyor belt to feed corporate canneries.
The story opens with the arrival of the summer pickers to harvest row upon row of tomato plants. This system still served Bud Tucker well – but it didn’t suit the people in charge of the canneries, who felt under the thumb of the farmers. What, they asked each other, if we could keep a regular flow of tomatoes into our canneries?
After some head scratching, the University of California invented a machine that could pick tomatoes far more quickly than any human hand. Clubbing together, the canneries put up money to produce a mechanised harvester to provide a steady flow of tomato pulp, and so do away with the ebb and flow of the farming year.
The initial prototypes didn’t work because the tomatoes proved too fragile against the steel claws of the mechanical picker. The solution? The cannery heads got university researchers to breed tomatoes tough enough to withstand the harvester’s claws. Problem solved. The new harvester was indeed revolutionary, harvesting 40–60 acres of tomatoes in a day. The slightly harder tomatoes landed, without being punctured, on a conveyor belt, and the vines were thrown out the back of the harvester. Except that now there was another problem: only a third of the tomatoes picked by the new harvester were ripe. Solution? Easy. Spray all the tomatoes with an ethanol hormone that turns them all red – whether ripe or not.
The next mechanical harvester ripped the whole tomato vine from the ground, roots and all. However, this introduced a new problem. How could the tomatoes be taken off the vine, once the plant had been ripped from the soil? Easy. Spray the whole crop with a desiccant salt that shrivels the leaves at harvest. But no sooner was this problem solved than another arose. Summer temperatures in California routinely reach 98°F/37°C. Unprotected by their canopy of leaves, the tomatoes, as the vines shrivelled, got sunburned. Solution? Spray the crop with a sunscreen whitewash.
‘By this point,’ says Tony, ‘the tomato had become a completely different product.’ Yes, the canneries controlled production. Hundreds of pickers had been laid off, and yet their tomato products were no cheaper. And a lack of flavour in the tomatoes had to be enhanced with sugar, which wasn’t good for the nation’s waistline. ‘And that’, he ends, ‘is the story of the industrialisation of agriculture in my lifespan.’
But the story isn’t quite told. The story has an addendum, which Tony calls the ‘RH’ factor. Because the tomatoes were no longer grown in rows, to give pickers access the tomato vines were a sprawling mass. Beneath the foliage rabbits and rats took advantage of a roof over their heads to eat as much food as they could. ‘It was rat heaven! And the RH factor is the level of rodent hair permitted by each country’s import regulations. Chile has a much lower RH factor than Belgium, say, or New Zealand – a discrepancy which effectively restricts the export value of US tomato products.’
To market, to market:
Having witnessed the transformation of the humble tomato, from a ball of hand-picked goodness into a rodent free-for-all, Tony was determined to find ways of getting organic produce to the people. His days of dropping chemicals, and selling to distributors, were over. In 1975 he and four local farmers held their first farmers’ market. On the first Saturday they were overwhelmed by 4000 customers who showed up to buy produce grown on 14 family farms. For Tony, this single market changed everything. Sidestepping the traditional system, he started selling directly to customers. And he has never looked back.
Before long Tony had gone from selling four kinds of produce at one Saturday market to 14 kinds of produce at three weekly markets. It was this – along with learning what chefs wanted to cook with in their kitchens – that made it possible for Tony and other organic farmers to earn a decent living. ‘I wouldn’t still be farming today if these things hadn’t happened. Because they made it possible for us to farm organically, on a small scale.’
This was a world away from agricultural practices of the day, which saw farmers pumping methyl bromide over thousands of acres, covering the soil with plastic to fumigate it, and producing harvests of up to 80 tonnes of strawberries per acre. Or of fumigating brussels sprouts to stop insects getting trapped inside. ‘Supermarkets would rather farmers use chemicals’, Tony says, ‘than for customers to find an aphid.’
Every year they held a ‘Tasting of Summer Produce’ dinner in the area. Not only was it a celebration of what could be produced locally on a small scale without chemicals, it was also a chance for farmers in the area to find out what the chefs presenting their food really wanted from them. Above all, it was a way of shortening the food chain.
‘Even though I’ve always felt that what you put in your body matters,’ says Tony, ‘this was a turning point for me.’ He was now growing for chefs who worked intuitively with produce. All this helped him to develop a sensitivity that, as a grower, he still values.
While selling vegetables in a ski town in Idaho – a town that swelled with 30,000 tourists over winter – Tony met an entrepreneur who changed the course of his life. Although the entrepreneur was selling Italian wine in the US at that point, he had plans to invest in citrus in Western Australia. Tony, his brother John, and business partner Jack Kidwiler, were sufficiently excited by these plans for them to invest in the business. This led Tony, the only one of the three with farming experience, to consult on the project in Western Australia, visiting two or three times a year for the next seven years.
For the Love of Food by Helen Hayward is published by Explore Australia (Richmond, Vic; 2015; HB; 208pp) and retails in Australia for A$49.95
This extract reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher and author.
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