Reportage

Tulips to Amsterdam

TASMANIA'S LABOR PREMIER, David Bartlett, was sensitive to the critical attention his state has long attracted on the mainland when he addressed the National Press Club in October last year. Challenging the national stereotype that Tasmania is a backwoods basket case, he pointed to an assessment by Commsec which showed that the Tasmanian economy was the best performing in Australia.

Bartlett no doubt surprised the scribes when he painted a picture of twenty-first-century economic prosperity built upon Tasmania's strategic advantages: water, renewable energy and broadband infrastructure. The address was part green paper, part election pre-launch, and the Premier was unapologetically bullish about the future.

Central to his manifesto was the idea of establishing rainy Tasmania as the nation's food bowl. Although Tasmania accounts for less than 1 per cent of Australia's land mass and 2 per cent of its population, the state has 12 per cent of its water. Bartlett identified initiatives in irrigation, innovative agribusiness, low-emission transport systems, and food, tourism and skills development as critical to his food-bowl strategy.

It was an ambitious and astute pitch that Bartlett's down-home political detractors will be hard-pressed to fault. Smart farms with niche fields bursting with produce are the marketing equivalent of Nanna baking organic apple pie. ‘We are the only place on earth that exports Fuji apples to Japan and tulips to Amsterdam,' Bartlett boasted. ‘We are the southern hemisphere's greatest producer of saffron, a substance literally worth its weight in gold.'

Who wouldn't want more Wild Wasabi Ashgrove cheese – just one of many desirable edibles produced by a northern-Tasmanian business owned and run by a fifth-generation dairy-farming family – plonked on premium platters from Milan to Mumbai? Who couldn't applaud the generation of better educational and employment opportunities along the paddock-to-plate supply chain, against a backdrop of entrenched Tasmanian underperformance on every measure of social and economic security, including the purchase and consumption of healthy food?

 

JONATHAN WEST, WHO returned to Hobart from Harvard University in 2006 to head the Australian Innovation Research Centre, is the ideas architect of the food-bowl vision. It is articulated in a new report commissioned by the Tasmanian Government, ‘An Innovation Strategy for Tasmania: A New Vision for Economic Development', released in October 2009.

West estimates that an additional five billion dollars can be generated from Tasmania's combined agriculture and food industry by enhancing the wine, dairy and aquaculture sectors. That's equivalent to ten thousand dollars for each Tasmanian. If these targets were realised, it ‘would roughly double Tasmania's total out-of-state sales and make Tasmania the richest state, per capita, in Australia'.

West is a former director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, and is both passionate and pragmatic about optimal use of the state's land and water resources – and refreshingly free of party-political bias. In developing the strategy, West looked to his intellectual favourites, chiefly Wilhelm Röpke, an economics professor who advised Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on the policies underpinning West Germany's postwar economic revival.

Central to Röpke's approach was the mittelstand, the large segment of the economy made up of companies with around a hundred employees. ‘The economies of Germany and Switzerland still to a very considerable extent draw on Röpke's philosophy of encouraging the distribution of wealth-producing property,' West explains. ‘It matches the needs of Tasmania's food industry. The right structure for our wine industry would be two hundred independent companies, not one giant company with ten thousand employees. The right structure for our dairy industry would be three or four processors, several hundred producers, and three or four Tasmanian-owned and managed dairy companies with Tasmanian brands, competing with one another.

‘Places that have this kind of economic structure, not necessarily food-based, are very healthy societies. When you have distributed property – not just housing, which is consumption property, but wealth-producing property – you have a very egalitarian society; you induce very desirable cultural characteristics. People stand on their own two feet; they're independent of government and large bureaucracies and hierarchies; they speak up; they tend to be democratic. It's difficult to maintain a democracy when you have a large number of people who have nothing to sell except their labour, and a small number of people who have vast wealth.'

Throw high-end agriculture and food, along with associated tourism and culture, into the Röpkerian mix and Tasmania – like Provence, Tuscany and the Napa Valley – will be recognised as one of the world's most desirable places to live, a ‘real economy based on real production', according to West.

There's many a slip twixt theory's cup and application's lip. But West is confident that Tasmania's food sector can realise its potential, provided government delivers a regulatory framework that facilitates, rather than obstructs, appropriate initiatives.

That's no insignificant proviso. ‘If I hear about another national plan, I'll scream,' he says. ‘Part of the problem we have in Tasmania is so often our view of things is coloured by Australian taken-for-granteds. We're part of Australia, so we live in a national discussion that is dominated by a physical reality that is very different from ours...we're short of water, but we're not in Tasmania; it's too warm, but it's not in Tasmania; agriculture is a mature and shrinking sector, but in Tasmania it's not mature and it's not shrinking.'

West is certain that establishing Tasmania as the nation's food bowl will depend largely on private initiatives, on a relatively small and fundable scale. ‘We've got enough people who are really determined to get on with it, people working in the sector,' he says, ‘including investors and entrepreneurs from outside Tasmania who recognise the opportunities and get together with local farmers.'

The food critics Leo Schofield and Matthew Evans relocated from Sydney to rural Tasmania in recent years, and have already spotted their own irresistible opportunities, revamping their own brands with tasty Tasmanian morsels. Welcome arrivals, for sure – but can individual players really drive enough food to market, at the right price, so that Tasmania can spread its stuff on the tables of the nation and beyond without substantial government intervention?

 

NICK NIKITARIS, A home-grown operator, is no ideologue – ‘actually I'm quite right-of-centre in many of my commercial viewpoints' – and believes politicians must take more responsibility for reversing current trends in the sector. The Nikitaris family business is Hill Street Grocer, described as ‘gloriously fecund' by Peter Timms in his recent book, In Search of Hobart (UNSW Press, 2009). Located in the newly trendy inner suburb of West Hobart, it's a corner shop perhaps like no other in Australia. Dirt-dusted South Arm pink-eye potatoes nestle near Houston salad greens, Nichols chickens, Tongola goat curd, Grandvewe sheep cheese and Domaine pinot noir; the deli is stuffed with Ziggy's sausages and sweets made by Nikitaris's Greek mother. An Orthodox icon watches over the constant bustle.

Nikitaris and his wife, Natalia Urosevic, left Tasmania after university, to work in banking and finance law in Melbourne and beyond. In 2001 they came home and went into partnership at Hill Street with Nick's brother Marco; a third brother, Nektario, recently opened a spin-off store on Hobart's eastern shore. ‘When we came back to Tasmania, we asked: What makes this business popular? Who is the customer, and what do they want? The answer was: an intimate personal relationship, and the knowledge they are purchasing something fresh and locally produced,' Nikitaris says.

‘And we find as soon as we offer anything that is locally produced, it will sell out the door, even if it's at a slightly higher price than anything else. Our silver beet comes from Midway Point, the leeks and Dutch carrots from a grower in Devonport, fresh wasabi from a lovely lady in Georgetown, Tina's Herbs from Birchs Bay. We have a cherry farmer who only grows cherries for us, and the rest go to New York for export. We have a view that if we support the local grower they will support us, and it will support a local family, and it will continue to make something better of the local community that we're in. It's not a motherhood statement – it's the reality.'

Nikitaris then points to more awkward realities. ‘There are a lot of beautiful things happening in Tasmania at a very small scale, but generally what's happening out there in the world of farmers and small producers is quite a difficult picture at the moment,' he says. Late last year, the fair-pricing fight between Tasmanian dairy farmers and National Foods (with Fonterra and Murray Goulburn, one of three major offshore companies who purchase and process Tasmanian milk) led to a statewide consumer boycott of National Foods' Pura milk.

‘Everyone's talking about the fact these milk producers are being suffocated by a ridiculous price, way below the cost of production. Everyone's saying isn't Pura greedy, and in fact they are greedy, and they are in the wrong – but no one's asked why. How did they get themselves in this position in the first place? Pura has two customers, Coles and Woolworths, that represent 90 per cent of the market share in Tasmania. That's the highest in the country, and we also have the highest supermarket grocery prices in the country and the lowest incomes. So what's happening to Pura is happening to a lot of producers across Tasmania.

‘There's a terrible consolidation of growers. We used to have lots of cauliflower and iceberg-lettuce growers in the south of the state, for example – they've all now disappeared. Plus, 30 per cent more fruit and vegetables are coming into Tasmania every year since seven-day trading was introduced – this is the fourth year now. So when they talk about paddock-to-plate and that sort of thing, the commercial regulation of the retail side has an enormous impact on how it nourishes small producers, or doesn't. I'd say to the supermarkets: Okay, you've got 90 per cent of the market share, but from now on X per cent of all of your production needs to be locally based, and you need to prove that, every quarter. You've taken the thing – now give back. How hard is that?'

Easier, you'd think, than spending a hundred million dollars of your own money importing outsized machinery to excavate a huge hole in a sandstone cliff in Hobart's relatively down-at-heel northern suburbs, and engaging Melbourne's Fender Katsalidis Architects to fill it with a supersized waterside showcase for your world-class collection of sex-and-death themed art. That's been the recent focus of the Tasmanian gambling magnate David Walsh, usually described as ‘eccentric' and increasingly famous for his forthcoming Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which will open to the public in late 2010.

Less well known outside Tasmania is his companion foodie initiative on the same site, Moorilla, originally the home of the Italian textile merchant, winemaker and arts patron Claudio Alcorso, who arrived in Tasmania in the 1950s. In 2005, Walsh spent more of his millions building The Ether building at Moorilla, housing The Source restaurant, named after John Olsen's six-metre painting suspended on the ceiling of the building's stairwell. Nearby sits his Moo Brew microbrewery; its boutique beer – ‘Not suitable for bogans,' ran the early ads – arrives in champagne-shaped bottles labelled with stylised William Dobell cows. A stone's throw away are the newer MONA accommodation pavilions, featuring furniture by young Tasmanian designers, and bedroom artwork pulled from the rebranded Moorilla wine label, images of wine-soaked naked men and women writhing on pleasure's edge...for the record, Leo Schofield gave the package the thumbs-up.

As a committed vegetarian, Walsh has a keen interest in growing and sourcing quality vegetables, and plans to plant organic hops and herbs at Moorilla, as well as a market garden at his Marion Bay property to supply his restaurant. But his ventures will never be wholesomely Nanna-with-apple-pie, nor Baba-with-baklava. Your afternoon delight in The Source is likely to involve chocolate, eggplant and dark ale. And things may only get wilder when Walsh does a deal with the Sydney-based star chef Tetsuya Wakuda, already a big fan of Tasmanian produce, or another of the ‘shit-hot' candidates with whom he's currently in negotiation. (Walsh's words, which mainland newspapers declined to include in the job ad.)

All that's ‘true to David and his iconoclastic approach', according to Mark Wilsdon, Moorilla's business manager, a former chef who trained in Hobart before stints in the late 1980s at La Tour d'Argent in Paris, Claridge's hotel in London and Chewton Glen country-house hotel in the New Forest, and then spent a decade running Tasmanian restaurants. ‘He finds the niche in the market that will engage with that sort of thing...we don't have a market drive to cater for the broader community; we welcome the broader community and want it to be accessible, but we know it's not what everyone is looking for.

‘I can't speak for David, but for me [our target market is] the politically socially and culturally aware, progressive-thinking people...in Tasmania, and beyond,' Wilsdon says. Neatly put. As a visionary and revolutionary himself, Professor Röpke would hardly be surprised.

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