FROM WAR ZONES TO HYDROPONIC LIVING
Wardell business operators Graham and Fiona Grant’s explosive story
MANY years working in a variety of war zones has given hydroponic lettuce growers Graham and Fiona Grant an excellent insight into running a financially viable farm.
It may seem like overly harsh grounding, but the duo is sure the time spent dodging bullets and digging up land mines from Kosovo to Kabul helped them create the right systems for financial and practical management in the greenhouse.
As the owners of highly successful Wardell Hydroponic Lettuce, to an outsider it would seem English-born Fiona and South African-born Graham have long had their boots in the mud. Indeed, the pair came to lettuce by way of macadamias – but before that, they toured the world in a variety of roles for the United Nations.
The daughter of a UN agronomist, Fiona became a chartered accountant and offered her services in budgetary control, while living in Jordan and working with refugees. She says she became used to the staccato sound of machine gun fire as she nodded off to sleep.
Graham learnt to disarm explosives while in the South African army – a stint in the Balkans at the end of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict saw him remove hundreds of unexploded bombs from gardens, schoolyards and homes. He often worked in the field with just a translator and a strong instinct.
For Graham, who continues to use his wartime skills – like thinking on his feet, approaching danger from a safe avenue, calculating risk and reward – running the practicalities of a hydroponic farm requires an identical skill set. While Graham was digging up mines, Fiona was working to help transition the war-torn country to a democratic government,
If we muck up here, we can’t just walk away. It puts a totally different (light) on how you treat money.
writing finance legislation and dealing with other civilian aspects of the peace accord.
After Bosnia, Graham found employment clearing mines in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, before the couple moved to a more peaceful existence in the NSW Northern Rivers.
They were nearly ready to tackle another big project – but decided first to pursue a master’s degree in project management.
“We did it together and it was great fun,” recalled Fiona.
Today the couple works from a small, relocatable site-office on the periphery of the Wardell farm, managing a steady flow of lettuce, pac choy and kale into the Coles Brisbane distribution centre.
“We were looking for something to sink our teeth into,” Fiona said.
While the farm has provided that project, Graham does note that spending aid money is very different to spending “your own”.
“If we muck up here, we can’t just walk away,” he says. “It puts a totally different perspective on how you treat money.”
Fiona points out by working as a team, this dynamic duo was able to achieve “tremendous results”. And when dealing with banks, the team effort was worth double.
“When involved with lending, there is a lot more confidence from the banks when two people are making the decisions,” she said.
Of course, it makes a difference when those decisions are backed by data.
“When we apply for a loan, we provide financial reporting,” she said.
“And banks take comfort from the knowledge that their money is being managed in a way that is consistent with the policy of the farm. A lot of people don’t know how to talk to lending institutions.
“Banks and farmers often do not talk the same language and I find that terribly sad.”
UNITED FARMERS: Graham and Fiona Grant, of Wardell Hydroponic Lettuce, have used their experiences in war zones to run a successful farming venture.
WHAT A CROP: Graham Grant at the East Wardell farm.