Rick Scoones, one suspects, doesn’t have troubles getting a table at many of Perth’s better restaurants.
As the public face behind Warren Grange Horticulture – the heirloom vegetable farm he and his wife Barbara own and operate in Pemberton – he’s on a first-name basis with many of the city’s more thoughtful chefs. If only he had the time to taste first-hand how cooks like Scott Brannigan (Bread in Common), Melissa Palinkas (Young George) and Gordon Kahle (Cook & Mason) celebrate his hard work.
The New Zealand-born farmer is intimately involved with every aspect of the growing process. He sows seeds. He picks vegetables. He drives through the night to hand-sell his produce at the Saturday morning Farmers Market on Manning before delivering orders to the aforementioned network of chefs. For a relative newcomer to the farming world, he’s taken to it well, not least because – as he puts it – he’s “halfway to 62.”
“It’s fortunate that my head hasn’t caught up with the age of my body,” laughs Scoones. “I do a lot of things people at the age of 40 don’t do.”
Topping this list of things-40-year-olds-don’t-do is packing in a career as an environmental scientist in 2011 and purchasing a 107-hectare former potato and tobacco farm. The Scooneses spent close to two years commuting between Perth and the Southern Forests before permanently relocating in 2013 to focus on growing rare-breed vegetables. It’s not hard to see why they made the treechange.
Warren Grange is a lush, calming space hemmed in by karri forest. The honesty box at the front of the property serves as both income stream and South West Highway landmark. The stillness of the country air is broken by the honking of geese. Chooks peck at blemished pumpkins and reward their owners with specatcular orange-yolk eggs.
“We’re not [certified] organic, but we’re just sensible and cautious,” says Scoones. “Every time you put herbicide or fungicide on something, it costs a lot of money. It’s got to be targeted and judiciously used.”
Warren Grange’s first seven years have been a mix of farming’s highs – growing and selling a $40000 crop of butternut pumpkin to a local processor – as well as its lows (the same processor cancelling the following year’s order just weeks out before picking). While the experience was a brutal lesson in the realities of farming, it also demonstrated the strong sense of community in rural Australia as neighbours rallied around the Scooneses and helped them back on their feet with interest-free loans and chipping in around the farm.
“It made us realise that the local country community really is a proper community," says Scoones.
The episode also convinced him that the farm’s future was in heirloom rather than commodity crops. In a relatively short amount of time, Warren Grange has established a reputation for an inventory that's as varied as it is colourful, from delicata squash and warty Galeux d’Eysines pumpkins to bulbous, Technicolor summer tomatoes with rapper-sounding names such as green zebra, Tommy Toe and tigerella. Tasting these full-flavoured varieties feels like discovering vegetables anew and may make going back to conventionally-grown specimens difficult. That, says Scoones, is the plan, as is offering produce at competitive prices.
“[Local chef] Stuart Laws is always telling me, ‘too cheap, too cheap, too cheap’,” he says. “I want people to go away with a good price experience and then when they sit down and eat the stuff they realise what a great deal they’ve had. That’s how I’ll develop my business.”
Kenny McHardy of Manuka Woodfire Kitchen was one of the first people in Perth to buy Warren Grange produce and remains a loyal customer. Like all enlightened chefs, he write his menus based on the produce available rather than dictating terms on growers.
“He picks things exactly when they should be eaten,” says McHardy. “When I see the satisfaction on customers’ faces, I’m so proud to serve his produce. His tomatoes are one of the reasons I look forward to summer so much.”