Germany had won another qualifying round match in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this particular morning and Stephen Schmitz, while making the day’s special in his fruit and veggie shop along the main road in Port Elliot, casually mentioned that his father had represented the German national team many years ago.
There was, however, the slightest of hint of sadness in his tone when he added that his dad was still later sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp because he was a German-Jew. Incredibly, he survived; physically anyway, but his grandfather, who was also taken, perished.
It was, of course, a long time ago in a far-away horrible place, and Stephen, 56, born in Butlers Gorge, Tasmania, certainly doesn’t dwell on this chapter. But he leaves no doubt the background steels him, and it has made his journey through an adventurous life even more remarkable.
Stephen, and his long-time treasured partner, Peta Dougherty-Allanson, launched their Jetty Food Store – the Six Acre Grocer – in Port Elliot which was born on this brilliant notion that it’s in our best interest if we can grow a few veggies in our backyard and sell the surplus to the local corner store. It follows success in their previous store in Normanville.
Like a History Channel special, Stephen delivered his life experiences generally with excitement yet always with humility, starting aged 10 when he was snaffled into a car with his younger brother to live with his mother in Meningie. Being a white Tasmanian from a land where they shamefully and historically wiped out the Aboriginal people on the island and now going to a school with 80 per cent Indigenous students, he learned to understand and appreciate the 200-year struggles of others.
Aged 15, he was offered a scholarship to the North Adelaide School of Arts in Stanley Street having won at The Advertiser Art show with a landscape, but his single mother insisted on a fitter and turner apprenticeship because there was no money in the household.
There was work from the gas fields in Moomba to clearing glasses as a trendy pub, which led to doing a hospitality management degree at Regency TAFE and wine marketing at Roseworthy College.
For good measure, Stephen used the pre-regulation slaughtering days to his advantage by picking up goats, cattle and sheep near the Clare Valley and export the meat, including his specialty salt bush lamb to internationally acclaimed chefs and supplying places like the Hong Kong Jockey Club with Sunday roasts.
We can also delve into his experience of living in Sydney, but it was moving into a bluestone seafront home near Normanville out of sight of humans, and eventually meeting up again with Peta, having been great friends many moons earlier, to both create a fish ’n chip shop that also sold sensational pizza that led to this fruit and veg experience.
And, for all this, we can thank a humble lemon and a little pig.
“I was driving from Normanville to Yankalilla and there was this big lemon tree,” Stephen explained. “We were selling fish ’n chips and I was thinking, you can’t sell them without a piece of lemon, and what better than to sell a local one.
“I left a business card on the guy’s door with a note saying I would happily buy a box of his lemons for $20 a week. From that, it really kicked me into my previous purveying life to think, hey, wait a minute, backyard gardens is where we need to go.
“I thought, if this world is going to survive and feed itself we need to use the already available huge amount of land known as frontyards and backyards that are doing nothing besides being mowed.
“The focus was more to invigorate people to use their yards for themself first and send the surplus to a local corner shop.
The other real motivator was the multi-nationals in Australia that hold 80 per cent of the market base are really pushing what I would call poisoned farming and farming with poisons.
“We’ve become a nation of gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant and a whole host of other things that 60 million years ago I don’t believe we were anything intolerant. We were just eating clean food. I think the highly processed industrialised food has caused a lot of health problems.”
Stephen and Peta also wanted to desperately to reinvigorate the small corner store that baby boomers grew up with; a lovely friendly atmosphere where you could pop down and get a really fresh tomato that had been grown with love to go on a lovely bit of toast that you just wanted to have in the morning while you were reading a good newspaper.
And the real early boomers may even remember when the local costermonger – or greengrocer – would drive his horse and cart selling, among other things, damn awful fresh Brussels sprouts to your mum. Okay; some people love them.
“We wanted to invoke localism by encouraging members of the community to give us surplus from their backyards, and from small farmers and orchardists within the area,” Stephen said.
“It was about bringing back the community to the corner store again and making that a focus instead of keeping multi-nationals going. Unless we start eroding into their bite they are not going to change what they do.
“Peta and I want to walk the rock a lot more softer than our generations have in the past, and we believe if our legacy is about creating a product that is Jetty Food Store, and that is about clean food, localism, engaging, learning, and is more than just about walking down to the supermarkets that are just conveyor belts of food, then we will be proud.”
Stephen said what his European heritage gave him was a passion for food. “It is ingrained,” he stressed. “It is also about totally appreciating what we have got. I believe in Australia we are not just lucky, we are far more than just lucky and we tend to believe it is our right to have what we have got without understanding why and how it became so.
“This reflects in our business; the average grower appreciating the opportunity to be able to grow fresh fruit and veg. It is something that a lot totally take for granted.
“In Europe, each town has its own speciality, but I believe in Australia we have become so homogenised… when you are looking at generically locally-grown produce the soils are different, climate is different; there is a whole host of little bits that put that uniqueness in the product which I believe is precious to us all.
“It is all about small plot intensive farming. Our top soil on a global basis has been lost. Top soil is built up by poo and more poo and more poo. That’s what soil is; poo and worms.”
And now for the little pig. Stephen wanted one because of their natural talent with rejuvenating the soil, but Peta was, to say the least, apprehensive.
“Just by luck, a pig came to us,” Stephen said of an amazing twist of fate. “Within less than a week this pig had totally soft-ploughed and mowed our little veggie patch. Now we use the pig around the while farm on Squires Road.
“The pig poo is great, and now we have sheep pooing and chickens pooing, and we have seen a marginal change in our property that had already been looked after well for 40 years.”
Imagine that; we men have never credited ourselves enough for knowing the real value of pig poo, but that’s also another story.
Meanwhile, on any given day we will have Mandy walking into the shop with her home-grown garlic and sweet potato, Jerry with butternuts from Barmera, Imran from Wellington with tomatoes, capsicums and Lebanese cucumbers, plus Sharon and Mark with a kilo of mixed lettuce, celery and rhubarb from their Middleton backyard. And so on.
It has been a wholesome, idealistic adventure for Stephen, and for the record he has not painted another landscape since winning that art prize and his mum keeping him from going to the Stanley Street art school. “I have not missed out,” he says. “Look around this shop; this is my artwork.” It’s a masterpiece, except for the fresh Brussels sprouts.