When demand outstripped local supplies A story of farmers large and small on the Apple Isle

 |  Reading time: 9 mins
When demand outstripped local supplies

This is a tale about our “rocky relationship” with Certified Organic cabbages on the island of Tasmania.

We started Southern Wild in late 2015 having recently arrived from across the seas. The early days of the business were infused with a heady cocktail of greener-pastures enthusiasm, a love affair with the brand of “Pure Tassie”, and a really healthy dose of naiveté that can only come from doing something brand new, in a new place, for the first time.

One of the guiding lights behind our vision was to (eventually) create a Certified Organic range of products derived from Tasmanian cabbage.

It wasn’t practical to certify immediately because we had no accurate gauge for demand and the costs of certification were beyond our startup budget. However, we wanted to make a concrete step in the direction of our dreams so we chose to align ourselves with the term “organic” from day one under the auspices that we would add the “certified” bit later.

Despite our own lack of certification we wanted to source certified organic Tasmanian cabbage as our mainstay. We knew that the temperate island conditions here were probably the best in Australia for year round cabbage growing, and figured that we might as well find our price with the realities of certified sourcing embedded into production.

Early warning signs from the locals

During the startup phase we surveyed the certified organic cabbage supplies on Tasmania. Our initial research did not yield a lot of results which we found somewhat surprising. There were literally tons of conventional cabbage available from a multitude of sources, but the clean green stuff seemed to be hiding. We though that perhaps it was due to our meagre network

Where was all the pure Tassie cabbage? Had we been mislead by the beguiling foodie brand power of this island state?

We spoke to a lot of respected local growers including Stan & Briony of Fat Carrot Farm, Alex Taylor of Golden Valley Farm and Hobart Superchef Tom Westcott (a.k.a The Demented Fermenter). They went to great lengths to communicate the many economic and environmental challenges that Tassie growers face down here.

Wise man Stan from Fat Carrot Farm. Prognosticator of good advice and cultivator of incredible leafy greens.

They all intimated in one way or another that our desire to source certified organic Tasmanian cabbage at wholesale prices seemed problematic on several levels.

Despite the repeated signals of seemingly trustworthy and reputable local legends we decided it would be best if we charged ahead in ignorant bliss.

Broadacre bonanza; the shortlived Forest Hill Farm era

One of the triggers to go ahead with our plan was the news that Forest Hill Farm — a Certified Organic broadacre grower in the north of the state — was resuming year-round cabbage production. They told us in person that they would be planting around 1600 heads of cabbage per fortnight.

Aside from the fact that they were our only local source, the news was a dream come true, and it turned out to be exactly that for a halcyon era that lasted no less than… 3 months!

THREE months you say?

Well dear reader, just as we were building up a head of steam we were notified by Forest Hill that they shutting up their multi million dollar operation for personal reasons that they did not wish to disclose. We initially thought it was some kind of strange April fool’s prank come early, but alas; it was not fake news. We were in disbelief for a while because Forest Hill were huge producers by Tassie standards.

Suffice to say this left us in more than spot of bother, and so began the great Tasmanian organic cabbage famine of the Summer of 2016-2017.

Mainlining the mainland

The clean, green Tas-foods scene is pretty small, and when you’re scratching around for fresh organic things all roads inevitably lead to Michelle Dyer of Harvest Feast. Michele and her man Paul run an amazing market stall at Salamanca on Saturdays. The produce on offer is incredible and her local and national sourcing network is second to none on the island.

We came to her hat-in-hand and revealed our miserable predicament. In an act of grace and benevolence she took pity upon our wild operation and introduced us to the gateway drug known as “mainland wholesale ordering”. This drug was a temporary methodone to our heroin because we really wanted the “Tasmanian” part of our business to actually mean something. But when presented with the notion of ceasing production altogether we decided to retreat to mainland sourcing.

We saw this mainland option as something short term and immediately began a campaign to recruit local growers to our cause.

Recruiting growers. Playing the long game, but for how long?

Our recruitment drive involved a great many phone calls and face to face meetings. One of the big things we learned that when it comes to Certified Organic vegetables in TAS, there are not a lot of medium and large scale producers who could meet our sourcing needs. The smaller local farms like Seven Springs Farm, Fat Carrot and Golden Valley cannot afford to sell at a wholesale price. Their business model is predicated on selling direct to their customers. And at the other end of the spectrum there was Forest Hill Farm, but their absence has left a gaping hole in Tasmania’s organic supply.

Cygnet druid rescue mission

We were fortunate to have some new friends abiding in the über-chic southern hamlet Cygnet who were interested in partaking in a speculative brassica bonanza.

Their names are Fin & Cara and in the fullness of time we came to realise that they are fully fledged modern day power-druids disguised as warm, generous, and compassionate human beings.

Fin was really excited to learn how to grow ENORMOUS CABBAGE and we wanted to learn a lot about the kinds of varieties that are best suited to Tassie soils and translate to world-class Sauerkraut.

So we hoarded a range of heirloom curiosities from the interwebs then Fin whispered to the worms and microbes and many wondrous cabbage came into this world.

While Fin & Cara were keen to expand their brassica horizons in order to learn some more about them, they weren’t keen on a long-term cabbage growing arrangement because it didn’t suit their life goals and would no doubt stymie their elevation to “ultra-mega-power-druid”s status which was surely imminent!

One does not simply “cabbage”…

We learned along the way that many cabbage varieties have been developed for sauerkraut over the years. However, their sauerkraut-friendly-ness was tied to production methods involving liquid brining, and pasteurization.

Our products are living foods (not pasteurized) and we use a traditional dry salting method to make them. So we actually needed the opposite of a “sauerkraut” style cabbage: one with thick leaves containing good amounts of moisture so that we can pull it out to form a natural brine with the dry salting method.

How a “rocky relationship” improved our local sourcing prospects

Our cabbage sourcing prospects really improved when we started working with the living legend Tony Scherer, who was recently awarded Senior Tasmanian of the Year for his incredible contribution to organics in the state.

Tony Scherer of Rocky Top Farm in Penna. We’re pretty chuffed to have this bloke as our nextdoor neighbour! Image credit: Sam Rosewarne

Tony is the main man behind the certified organic Rocky Top Farm and grows a cornucopia of delicious vegetables which can be experienced at Hobart’s finest eateries.

Rocky Top also happens to be the closest vegetable farm to our business which is pretty damn amazing for our food miles status!

Tony was piqued by the notion of growing cabbage and figured that his farm could accommodate our needs. So we took all the great growing insights gained from the Fin & Cara project and sought to improve upon them out Penna way.

The results of Tony’s hard work speak for themselves:

Real progress!

In the Summer of 2016–17 we could not source a single certified organic cabbage from anywhere (including the mainland). A year later we were proud recipients of some truly great organic cabbage that had travelled a sum total of 10kms to reach us.

It was really hard to envision something like this working out a year ago but today we are much closer to our original objectives of organic and local.

A huge shout out to all the people and growers who have helped us get to this point!

What’s Next?

Tony has several hundred heads of cabbage in the greenhouse as I write.

In light of all that we’ve learned about local sourcing we’re going to consolidate our market in order to honour the local supplies that are available. This means that we’re intending to source from Rocky Top for the remainder of 2018 and work our production times around his harvest schedule.

A new business model…

Local sourcing issues have fundamentally changed the way we see our business going forward. We’ve responded to what’s ethical, local, and scale appropriate by changing our business model. We’ve moved away from wholesale sales for the foreseeable future and have embarked upon Australia’s first ferment box membership program!