EMMANUEL Cafcakis is always looking for the next big thing - even if it means taking some lessons from the past.
The desire to innovate has helped the Virginia market gardener build a thriving business, but has also led to him being recognised as 2022 SA Grower of the Year in the Vegetable Industry awards for excellence last month.
Emmanuel grew up with the industry "in the blood", helping out his parents.
In the early years of the business, they grew a wide range of vegetable lines, but it is tomatoes where he found his space.
In the search for something new and different, he and his late brother and business partner Bill Cafcakis, found the solution while looking at something older.
About eight years ago, they moved across to growing heirloom tomatoes.
"I could see all the big boys were getting bigger and we couldn't compete so we did something different and could get a bit of a premium," Emmanuel said.
"We try to do what we do, and do it better.
"I could see overseas that people were going back to heirlooms and I thought that would happen here too."
The shift in markets did take some adjustments - for both customers and grower.
Emmanuel said in the early days they overestimated the market and grew too many of the fruit.
But this did have some benefits. With an oversupply of the heirloom tomatoes, they were selling them below the cost of production, which enticed some customers to try them.
This helped to grow the popularity of these varieties, and these days the market is booming, with produce delivered to all states.
"I used to send 100 boxes to WA and now if I send 300 boxes, they're asking for more," he said.
Emmanuel said the heirloom varieties, while using the same growing processes, generally yielded less and for a shorter duration than some of the new hydroponic varieties, which was why they needed that premium.
But he said it was also a return to a better-tasting tomato.
In order to begin growing these heirloom tomatoes, Emmanuel had to source many of the seeds himself.
He found a small, family-owned seed company in Turkey, which they have been working with for years.
Emmanuel also has his eye on what he thinks might be the next big thing in the tomato world.
"I'm always trying to find something different, something else," he said.
"I try to look and be a step ahead in our game. I don't want to be like everyone else."
He said pink tomatoes had been making a splash in Europe but were yet to find a place in Australia.
"It doesn't look 'right' like a tomato but the taste is big," he said. "It's been winning awards in Spain and won a blind taste test for tomato of the year. The pink tomato is going to work, but it will take time."
He said the pink tomato would be available from November and they would build a customer base by including it in "medley" boxes, which included a range of different varieties.
I could see all the big boys were getting bigger and we couldn't compete so we did something different and could get a bit of a premium.- EMMANUEL CAFCAKIS
Innovation is not just confined to varieties.
In the days when they grew a fuller range of vegetable lines, he and Bill sought out a solution after chemicals were becoming less effective in managing insect burdens.
They began trying out integrated pest management - using beneficial insects to control pests and diseases - and were among the early adopters.
"In the early stages, we were new to it and so were the biological services," Emmanuel said.
"We were the guinea pigs. But we learnt a lot of what to do and what not to do and eventually got it right."
Emmanuel said he was always willing to try new ideas.
Each day he receives an email that shares some of the trends and ideas in horticulture from across the world.
"I look at the new ideas and technologies and think 'can I introduce that into my business?", he said.
This willingness to look at new ideas has also taken him overseas to Sicily in Italy, as well as Spain and Holland, to see what overseas growers are doing.
But while he enjoys leading the way, Emmanuel is happy to help others along, with a particular passion in assisting other family-owned businesses.
He said other growers in his region had also adopted heirloom varieties, and he was glad to pass on the lessons he had learned.
"I don't want to keep it to myself if I can help others," he said.
"There can be some tough times in this business, so we need to help each other."
While in the past, Emmanuel has had to play a lot of roles - particularly since the loss of brother and business partner Bill - in recent years his son Jack has joined the business, allowing him to focus more on his preferred past-time - the growing and even spend some more time with wife Hari.
"I like to see the produce and if we make a mistake, try to fix it," he said. "To see our product on shelves and know it's yours, with your brand, it's a nice feeling."
AusVeg SA chief executive officer Jordan Brooke-Barnett congratulated Mr Cafcakis on receiving the award, saying it recognised a pioneering grower who had taken great risks within his business to trial innovative new techniques, which were now commonplace.
"Emmanuel is a pioneer within our industry, noted for his willingness to support others within the industry and stands apart as a quality greenhouse grower," he said.
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