VICTORIAN herb farming executive Jan Vydra won the emerging leader title at last night’s 2016 Rabobank Leadership Award.
Mr Vydra is a co-founder and chief executive officer of hydroponic herb grower and distributor Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, based at Croydon in Melbourne’s eastern fringe.
Established eight years ago, Fresh Leaf now has 85 staff producing up to 180,000 bunches of 17 different herbs weekly for major retailers, green grocers and the hospitality sector.
The 34-year-old Mr Vydra was recognised for playing a formidable role in changing his business and the industry
Rabobank Australia and New Zealand Group managing director Peter Knoblanche said Jan Vydra was a “trail-blazer” in the food and agri industry, starting the fresh herb company (along with business partner William Pham), which had now become one of Australia’s leading producers of fresh leaf greens, culinary herbs, micro-greens and edible flowers.
“This is really a tribute to his focus on sustainability, innovation and technology,” Mr Knoblanche said.
“Jan doesn’t do things the way they have always been done - he challenges the status quo, taking an integrated approach to the supply chain and adopting cloud technology in his new state-of-the-art greenhouse.”
Under Mr Vydra’s leadership, Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs had grown from a hydroponic operation producing 2000 bunches of herbs per week to now supplying up to 180,000 bunches each week to consumers across much of Australia.
“During Jan’s relatively short tenure in the industry, the change he has brought not only to his business, but the industry, has been formidable,” he said.
Jan doesn’t do things the way they have always been done - he challenges the status quo, taking an integrated approach to the supply chain and adopting cloud technology in his new state-of-the-art greenhouse.
“And this is really a tribute to his focus on sustainability, innovation and technology.
Mr Vydra’s leadership extends beyond his business to the wider industry with involvement on key industry organisations including the Horticulture Advisory Committee for Consumer and Market Development at Horticulture Australia and the Coles Produce Agronomy Group.
“Jan is also a great advocate for young people in the industry. Named as the Young Farmer of the Year in 2011, he has used that award to showcase the opportunities for young people in agriculture particularly those who might not have had a previous association with farming but are interested in technology and the increasingly important role it plays in the industry,” Mr Knoblance said.
Accepting the Rabobank Emerging Leader Award, Mr Vydra said his leadership style had been developed at a very young age, when at just 23 he was appointed general manager of an organisation with 90 employees.
Now running his own company with 85 employees, working across two sites in Victoria, Mr Vydra said he learned a lot from that early experience.
“The most important thing I learned is that, as a leader, you need to paint a picture of where you want your business to go,” Mr Vydra said.
“And then communicate it to all your stakeholders so they are on board with your vision.
“For us at Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, our vision has always been to produce consistent fresh produce for our consumers in a sustainable way.”
Much of this vision stemmed from the shift in Australia’s cooking culture aided by the advent of reality cooking shows, he said.
“In 2008 we saw MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules burst onto our TV screens, and that has really changed our cooking culture and sparked demand for fresh produce,” he said.
“And seeing that gap widen between the demand and supply of fresh leaf greens, we saw an opportunity to develop and implement a sustainable and efficient production process using closed hydroponic systems.
“When we started out we used to grow around 150 bunches per square metre out in the paddock, and now with a hydroponic system we can produce 600 bunches in the same area – with the operation spanning 30,000 square metres.”
With the recent development of a 4000 square metre state-of-the-art greenhouse, funded by the Coles Nurture Fund, Mr Vydra said the business had seen further significant water savings through the combination of Dutch-designed rolling benches and proprietary cloud technology developed by the business.
Through his studies as a 2016 Nuffield Scholar titled ‘more food, less earth’, Mr Vydra is also currently investigating innovative ways to boost the yields and sustainability of fresh herbs and salad leaf production, particularly through genetic improvements, having recently returning from study trips to Indonesia, Japan, Israel and The Netherlands.
Other important leadership qualities, Mr Vydra said, included an innate ability to problem-solve and develop a culture within the organisation, where people wanted to come to work and had a sense of purpose.
“At Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs we have a young team that are really energetic and keen to innovate, and this is pivotal in helping us continue to drive our business forward,” he said.
“We now have plans afoot to build a new purpose-built facility near Melbourne, and are also looking at establishing another two more sites in other parts of the country.”
Aiming to be an international player, the business is also trialling the export of fresh leaf herbs into Asian markets, with the aim to export into the 17 key economic regions of South-East Asia.
As part of his Rabobank Emerging Leader Award win, Mr Vydra will also undertake an international educational farm visit to a country relevant to his agricultural sector, as well as business mentoring sessions with the 2016 Rabobank Leadership Award winner, Sir Graeme Harrison – who received the flagship award in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the food, beverage and agribusiness sectors.