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Jan Vydra is Farming Forward: The Future of Herbs in Australian Manufacturing

As Inverloch 3996 is supported greatly by our local farmers, we had to share the story of Jan Vydra, a herb farmer in the Dandenong region, with a passion for agriculture that knows no bounds. Jan is the recipient of many awards, his company, Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, is now a leading industry supplier. We sit down with the farmer to learn more about his motivation and success.
When did you establish Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs and how did the concept come about?Jan: The Company is seven years old. 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. People who were traditionally meat and three vegetables started looking at recipes for the first time. Herbs were a major driving factor, consumption was increasing and we jumped on that wave. We started growing 2000 bunches of basil and 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.What were you doing prior to this?Jan: I managed a fruit and vegetable firm and worked with farmers to ­improve their supply chain processes. Through these collaborations, I met William Pham. We discovered that fresh herbs were inconsistent in quality and pricing — a real problem for the industry.

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I understand there is some technology involved?
We established Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs because we saw a gap in the market. The delivery of fresh, high quality herbs all year round was important to us and technology played a big part in ensuring we could make it happen. We’ve simplified the supply chain system with innovative technology from not only an ordering perspective but also our growing methods. I embrace a partnership of technology and modern farming systems. For example, AFLH has been able to successfully save just shy of half a billion liters of water since 2008, and produce five times more basil per square meter as compared to traditional farming systems. In regards the ordering process, all our stakeholders now have greater visibility with orders and we can forecast and plan much more succinctly.Do you have a particular philosophy that drives the business?Jan: My vision is centred on growing food sustainably and hydroponic and greenhouse production has enabled us to do this more efficiently. This coupled with using innovative technology is what drives our business. We are always searching for the best possible way to get fresh herbs to consumers in the most sustainable manner. AFLH was recently awarded a $430,000 interest-free loan from Coles Nuture Fund to build a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse. This expansion was a major part of the capital projects of $1.4million invested since October 2015. The new greenhouse is expected to increase productivity by 500 per cent. It comes down to this: the farming industry needs to invest in sustainable farming methods to provide fresh, environmentally friendly produce. We also hope that the use of popular technology will attract more young people to join the industry. Working in the industry I often see a disconnection between consumers and food. There  are a lot of people that don’t know where exactly their food comes from. I’d like to change this by engaging with more people about the importance of farming and fresh, sustainable produce.I understand that you have received numerous awards.

Jan: Yes, I am proud to have been granted the 2016 Nuffield Scholarship. As part of this award, I 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. I’ll also investigate other innovative ways to boost the yields and sustainability of fresh herbs and salad promotion. In 2011, I was awarded Australian Young Farmer of the Year. I was a finalist in the 2011 Telstra Business Awards and received a place in the BRW Fast Starters list in 2012. This recognition has fueled my passion to expand.

How does the future look?

Jan: AFLH has been busy with local demand, supplying Coles and other independent retailers, but export is also growing exponentially year on year. We are currently exporting up to $800,000 worth of product a year to 17 countries and looking to expand. We want to continue to be recognized as one of the country’s leading producers of fresh leaf greens, (including culinary herbs, micro-greens, edible flowers and novelty cresses), with a passion to always innovate and find ways to do things more sustainably and efficiently. Since 2008, we have dramatically cut our water, land and labour use, but I know there are more opportunities. We also want to explore other markets, such as medicinal herbs.

Are you looking forward to speaking at the Smart Manufacturing 16 event in Dandenong?

Yes I am thrilled to be participating in the Smart Manufacturing 16 event in Dandenong and Melbourne, which, will focus on priorities for investment, jobs, growth, and innovation. It should help dispel some of the misconceptions about manufacturing and redirect attention to health and wellbeing. The area is a critical zone and accounts for 50% of manufacturing output. I believe it will open the eyes of the public and the press.

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