Catherine Velisha, 34, from Velisha Farms in Werribee is this year’s Hort Innovation supported Nuffield scholar.
From working in her father’s packing shed to becoming Managing Director of the family business, Catherine has big plans for the future of her family farm.
Thriving on a challenge, Catherine recently took ownership of her family’s 153-hectare integrated horticulture business, comprising three properties at Tatura, Caldermeade and Werribee South.
Her Nuffield Scholarship will investigate how horticultural family businesses can build and harness the skills they need to be competitive in the marketplace.
As the Managing Director, not only does Catherine oversee a number of Victorian growing operations as well as a large packing facility in Werribee South, employing between 70-80 staff across all facets of vegetable production, she also grows, supplies and markets cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, iceberg lettuce, spring onions, kale and a variety of herbs into both wholesale markets and supermarkets.
Recognising the challenges faced by family farms in the horticultural sector, Catherine said she will focus on the opportunities and strengths unique to the family farm business model, and how to better leverage these to obtain and retain a competitive advantage.
“With the majority of Australian farming businesses being family owned and operated, it’s paramount these businesses can be sustainable and grow into the future,” she said.
“I’m keen to identify and evaluate the external factors influencing the performance of family horticulture businesses, and ultimately develop a ‘toolbox’ to help family businesses stay competitive in our industry.”
Catherine is the third generation of her family to embark on a career in the horticulture industry. Her father, Veli Velisha, was a vegetable grower who traded in the wholesale market until Catherine took over the reins in 2016.
Catherine said the transition hadn’t come without its challenges.
“All growers have their challenges, and Velisha Farms is not immune to obstacles,” she said.
“This includes rising costs of water and electricity, attempting to minimise waste while adding value to produce, and of course, the weather. Trying to combat these challenges can be tricky, but there are ways to minimise their impact.
“We’re looking at many different ways of using our out-of-specification products to drive value, so that’s through processing and products such as florets or spiralising zucchini.
“Our goal is to create a zero-waste culture. We strive to do this daily, and work in conjunction with teams such as Foodbank to make sure we are reducing our negative footprint on the world.”
Catherine said ultimately, her vision was to create a model of continuous improvement, growth and expansion, creating an environment and business that gives endless opportunity to its people, enabling them to reach their full potential
“What I enjoy most about this business is the leadership and giving opportunities to my peers and teammates; to see them blossom and take on challenges.
“I’ve found that as soon as I’ve given people chances, they’ve really taken it on-board. I like the strategic side of the business; the angle of where we’re going to take it, creating a team and allowing them to work the vision.”
Over the course of her scholarship, Catherine will travel to the United Kingdom, the US, Europe and China to explore the structures and strategies that enable family businesses to thrive in these advanced and competitive markets.
We at Hort wish her the best of luck and look forward to hearing about her experience and the knowledge gained on behalf of the industry.