Jan Vydra of Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs at Clyde grows forward
JAN Vydra may be a first-generation farmer but it’s clear he has more passion for agriculture and growing good food than some industry stalwarts put together.
It’s this breath of fresh air in an ageing sector, his innovation and drive that has landed Jan in a unique position — he has not only been awarded a 2016 Nuffield Scholarship but his business, Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, established only seven years ago, has grown exponentially by over 1700 per cent to become a leading industry supplier.
Jan, who also won a national young farmer award in 2011, said the success of any business was hard to determine because there was generally a number of factors contributing.
“The timing of our business was perfect because in 2008 we had all these TV shows coming through like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules that changed the cooking culture in Australia,” Jan said.
“People that were traditionally meat and three veg started looking at recipes for the first time.
“Herbs were a major driving factor, consumption was increasing and we jumped on that wave.”
GROW FOR GOLD
PRIOR to starting the business, Jan managed a fruit and vegetable firm and worked with farmers to improve their supply chain processes. Through these collaborations, Jan met William Pham. They discovered that fresh herbs were inconsistent in quality and pricing — a real problem for the industry.
It wasn’t long after in 2008 Jan and William founded Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, where they started growing 2000 bunches of basil.
Seven years on and they now supply up to 150,000 bunches of herbs, micro-cresses, edible flowers and Australian natives a week to Australian consumers, including some of the nation’s most revered chefs.
The success of the business can be attributed to Jan’s focus on driving innovation in all areas of the business, including incorporating innovative technology within the business process. Using this partnership of technology and modern farming systems, AFLH has been able to successfully save just shy of half a billion litres of water since 2008, and produce five times more basil per square metre, compared to traditional farming systems.
THEIR philosophy is centred on growing food sustainably and hydroponic and greenhouse production has been the centrepiece for most increased efficiencies.
AFLH were recently awarded a $430,000 interest-free loan from Coles Nurture Fund to build a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse. This expansion was a major part of the business’ capital projects of $1.4 million invested since October last year.
With a completion date of March this year, the new greenhouse is expected to increase productivity by 500 per cent.
The new greenhouse will feature Dutch designed rolling benches, increasing usable space by more than 25 per cent compared to nutrient flow tables currently used in hydroponic growing.
This will also double production yield and increase direct labour efficiencies by an additional 50 per cent.
Jan said through environmentally controlled production, the rolling benches allowed them to harvest a greater variety of herbs, reducing wastage and increasing overall capacity by more than 150 per cent.
“The farming industry needs to invest in sustainable farming methods to provide fresh, environmentally-friendly produce,” Jan said.
“We also hope that the use of popular technology will attract more young people to join the industry.”
AS PART of his Nuffield Scholarship, Jan will travel to 20 countries and report back to the Australian farming industry on how vertical cropping not only has the ability to urbanise agriculture, but also change horticulture as we perceive it today.
“Farmers currently grow on a single level so they plant in a paddock or on hydroponic tables and rely on walkways between the tables to plant, tend, and harvest the produce. By being able to use this space for growing, the efficiency of the area can be increased substantially.
“The whole system allows the farming to come to the farmer,” Jan said.
“Imagine if I could put multiple layers on top of each other and grow up. We can grow eight layers high and get close to 300 plants per square metre.”
This technology is being developed in Dubai, Singapore and China where they have dense populations.
Jan said the technology meant food could be grown very close to the main population.
“There would be less food miles as we can have food grown closer to our cities with greenhouses put on top of factories in town,” he said.
“In a sense we are looking at the farm coming to the people and so we’re making agriculture more interesting to young people.”
THE innovation, fresh thinking and dedication of AFLH has landed the team a series of accolades, including finalists in the 2011 Telstra Business Awards and a place in the BRW Fast Starters list in 2012.
A cornerstone of their success was gaining an intimate understanding of the supply chain process and growing methods.
From garnering the knowledge and applying their business acumen, Jan designed an innovative cloud based IT system to improve supply chain processes.
The results provided a higher level of product traceability and greater efficiency.
“We are making farming more attractive,” Jan said.
“The industry historically has had a generational culture associated with it, and the benefits of being a non-generational farm is that we are establishing ourselves in the industry with fresh eyes,” he said.
“We want to become an industry leader valued by consumers and those coming out of universities — so young people will say ‘we want to be part of that team’,” Jan said.
MEET THE MARKET
AFLH has been busy with local demand, supplying Coles and other independent retailers, but export is also growing exponentially year on year.
They are currently exporting up to $800,000 worth of product a year to 17 countries and looking to expand.
“We have two to three major customers domestically, including a flourishing relationship with Coles,” Jan said. “They have been really supportive of us and we won the 2015 Coles Rising star of the Year award.”
Jan expects medicinal herbs will become a bigger part of the business. “We are eagerly following Japan on functional and medicinal herbs,” Jan said.
“So many people are so disconnected from food — they don’t understand the goodness in it because they are just not engaged in it. But food really is the basis of life and more people are gravitating towards fresh food.”