Results of bold decision stack up
A North-West family took a risk in rapidly growing its vegetable business and is now reaping rewards, including an export award. Karolin MacGregor reports
Afocus on producing top-quality vegetables and developing overseas markets has made Premium Fresh one of the state’s top exporters.
The operation recently won the Tasmanian regional exporter of the year award for the second time after first claiming the gong in 2011.
While the business has grown significantly since it was established in 2000, it is still a family operation and is headed up by brothers Jim, Mike and Rick Ertler.
The family was farming on the Forthside property where the operation’s factory is now when they saw a value-adding opportunity.
At the time they were also running a small vegetable-processing business in Devonport, which they sold in 2005.
In the early days the family’s main crop was carrots and they soon moved into onions.
“We saw a gap in the market, we got good feedback for our products. We were putting them into Sydney, particularly carrots,” Mike said.
“So there was a gap and we filled it pretty quickly and expanded in 2001, so we stuck our necks out pretty well.”
The expansion saw them go from growing about 33ha a of carrots to 142ha in the space of one year. Nowadays the company grows about 200ha a year.
“The opportunity came because of where Tasmania fits in, producing vegetables in that summer period,” Jim said.
“We’re reliable as versus the mainland where they can have 10 days in a row over 40C. Our mainland customers recognised that, so for those vegetables, for summer production, Tasmania is a good place to be.”
Carrots are the main crop, but the company now also grows about 150ha of onions, leeks, shallots and red onions along with broccoli, beetroot, Brussels sprouts, swedes and turnips. More recently they also grow asparagus.
“We’ve been keen on trying to extend out season because we’ve got a lot of infrastructure tied up for a short period of time and management resources as well,” Mike said.
“So we’re trying to push our season and our production income flow out as far as we can.”
The business employs about 60 fulltime staff but the number of employees can go up to 240 in the peak season.
While it is early days the brothers have high hopes for their asparagus crops.
“We think it going to be a bit like the cherries of the vegetable world,” Mike said. “It’s a niche commodity and it’s at the higher end.”
At present there are only a few small asparagus growers in the state.