A DESIRE to find the next technique, variety or management style to give his business "the edge" has helped drive Mark Pye to become one of the nation's leading potato, carrot and onion growers and SA Grower of the Year.
Mark, who owns and manages Zerella Fresh, was recognised in the Ausveg SA and William Buck Vegetable Industry Awards for Excellence, before going on the win the national Innovation Partner award at the Hort Connections conference.
"I still can't believe what the business has developed into, beginning in 1990 with just a small farm outside Parilla and five staff working around the clock," he said.
He grew up in New Zealand as a second-generation potato farmer, moving to Australia in 1990.
"We searched Australia for the 'perfect' growing region which landed us in the Mallee region in SA," he said.
"When I moved to the region from NZ, there were two other small potato growers in Peebinga."
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He began by leasing 250 hectares of land from a local cereal producer, then installed pivot irrigation and started supplying 8000 tonnes of processing potatoes to McCain Foods.
Mark said he was always searching for new ideas to help build the business.
"I believe you can always do better, so I am always keen to learn and try new things finding the next edge to our business, which often involves travelling interstate or overseas observing the practices of cutting-edge growers," he said.
He said the business would generally trial about five to 10 new varieties of different vegetables each year, selected using research on yield, taste, vigour and growing performance.
"Trialling a variety is similar to buying a lotto ticket with slightly better odds," he said.
"On average, 2 per cent to 5pc of these trialled varieties will make it on the supermarket shelf."
He said looking at international trends was also key when considering what the Australian consumer might be seeking in the future.
These consumer trends helped lead to the development of low carbohydrate potato variety Spud Lite.
"We saw growth in the 'health-conscious consumer' who still wanted the great taste of a yellow-fleshed potato," he said.
Mark said this process began about 12 years ago with a low carbohydrate variety in the Netherlands.
"Firstly, we needed to learn how to grow the variety on Australian soil, then over six years we built up the volumes so it could meet the potential market demand," he said.
"During these six years we conducted numerous tests confirming that the variety was also low carbohydrate in Australia, which was confirmed and began to build the brand Spud Lite."
He said they still test every pivot, checking that it meets the nutritional claims on their packaging.
Mark has also been a leader in the field of labour, particularly attracting and retaining workers.
He has worked with researchers to quantify the labour shortage in SA's horticultural sector, saying good staff was the "cornerstone" to Zerella Fresh's success.
"There are many challenges to building such a workforce in horticulture," he said. "We find the biggest factor is the remoteness of our more regional locations, presenting challenges that include provision of housing, lifestyle and the opportunities for partners and children."
Mark said trying to attract the right people required a multi-faceted approach.
"Despite our best efforts to employ local people in regional locations, we are often forced to encourage people to relocate from within Australia or employ people from outside of Australia," he said.
Trialling a variety is similar to buying a lotto ticket with slightly better odds. On average, 2 per cent to 5pc of these trialled varieties will make it on the supermarket shelf.
"This requires Zerella to invest in local housing and the creation of a welcoming small community with opportunities for partners and children.
"To achieve this we need government policy and the political will to support targeted regional migration.
"Our experience has overwhelmingly demonstrated that migrants that have joined Zerella establish themselves as long-term members of our regional communities. Rather than taking jobs, these migrants create jobs for locals both within Zerella and in the local community."
Zerella Fresh was an early adopter of the industry-led Fair Farms initiative to demonstrate its compliance to ethical workplace practices.
Mark splits his time with half dedicated to the farm, and the rest is divided between staff management and marketing.
"My favourite part of the business is watching the produce grow, beginning with planting the seed through to seeing the outcome, whether it be successful or unsuccessful I am always learning new things," he said.
He works alongside wife Fiona and marketing manager daughter Renee, while son Lachy and youngest daughter Charlotte are also involved.
- This story first appeared on the Stock Journal.