By all standards and metrics, Catherine Velisha is a resounding business success. She serves as the managing director of Velisha Farms, which has more than 80 employees working in all areas of vegetable production. The Velisha family has run a farm in Werribee South for more than 70 years. Velisha Farms is currently valued at $30 million; it supplies produce to Aldi stores in Victoria and New South Wales.
Velisha Farms operates a sizable packaging operation beside broccoli, cauliflower, and iceberg lettuce farm at its Werribee South headquarters. In other parts of Australia, the company grows celery, kale, coriander, brassicas, zucchini, and brassicas.
In order to inspire and educate the next generation of horticulturists, farmers, and hospitality professionals, she has also founded two education companies. However, she has had to learn to pivot and modify her business in recent years, just like everyone else, because her progress hasn’t been linear.
The initial days
Believe it or not, Catherine made the decision to take over Velisha Farms five years ago on the spur of the moment, according to her.
“I hadn’t ever thought about it or really considered it at all during my career until the opportunity was presented to me. But timing is everything; it came at the right time for me. The first 24 months were extremely stressful, and I quickly learnt some business fundamentals. Cashflow is everything. Having the right team of people is crucial, and any decision is better than no decision at all.”
Catherine says that she had spent her entire life around farming, even before she began working for her family at the age of 19.
“I had worked in the business since I was 19, so about nine years before I decided I needed a career change. I did a youth work degree while still working at Velisha Farms, and balancing studying, working and learning more about the industry showed me that there is so much opportunity. I also like how it offered me the freedom of choice and a completely new lens to see my industry through. It brought me a new sense of wonder and excitement about the fresh produce industry.”
The most significant
Catherine points out that the horticulture sector is essential, significant, and opportunity-rich. She believes that farmers, who own and own the horticulture industry, are the industry’s original start-ups and entrepreneurs.
“I knew I wanted to be in the agriculture industry because of the excitement and dynamic layers of the industry. We have all the excitement of the stock market with fruit and vegetable prices changing in response to market influences daily, we have science and technology weaved throughout all facets of our businesses, and our supply chain is built on diversity and resilience; the backbone of all our businesses, it’s in our blood.
“I absolutely believe that there is no more critical, important and opportunity-filled industry than horticulture. Farmers are the original start-ups and entrepreneurs, running and owning the horticulture sector.
‘Last but not least, climate change is the greatest threat to humans and the world as we know it. Horticulture is the way we will save the world!”
Coping with entrepreneurial stress
Entrepreneurship is commonly acknowledged to be one of the most difficult careers. They must deal with uncertainty and the reality that they are personally accountable (and liable) for every decision they make. Catherine notes that self-doubt has been another obstacle for her since taking over the company.
“I think my biggest challenge was self-doubt and getting used to the 24hr pressure that being a business owner has. While I don’t work 24/7, my team will surely call me on that, but it never leaves your mind.
“I continually manage the pressure and stress through regular exercise, self-talk, and reflection. For me, it’s absolutely fundamental that my stress levels are kept within a healthy range because if it is not, then my leadership and guidance diminish, and I owe it to my team to be the best leader I can be for them.”
Finding the balance
“As my career has progressed, it is apparent that there is obviously room for improvement within horticulture and agriculture in regards to having better representation for women and improved behaviours in the industry. Although I do see a slow positive shift, some areas can be improved, such as both women and men championing more cultural diversity within key leadership positions in our industry.
“Our businesses are made up of workforces from a variety of different nationalities. To be a good leader, you need to reflect and embody your workforce. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of at Velisha farms; our leaders have all worked their way up within the business and are reflective of our employee cohort.”
Inspiring next-gen growers
According to Catherine, the largest obstacle has been that people don’t consume enough fresh produce—only 1 in 5 Australians consumes enough fruit and vegetables.
“Our biggest pivot during covid was creating a sister company called VEG Education. Veg Education is a Registered Training Organisation created specifically for the horticulture and agriculture industries. We think education can change everything for our industry by realistically addressing its major issues.
“Our biggest issues in horticulture are people’s lack of consumption of fresh produce; only 1 in 5 people eat enough fruit and vegetables in Australia. The other major problem for us is attracting and retaining employee talent; education is the answer!
Furthermore, Velisha Farms has begun offering primary schools in Victoria the opportunity to participate in a practical programme to encourage young children to pursue professions in agriculture. Through the Victorian Farmers Federation-supported education programme, young children will learn about sustainability, how their food is grown, and the variety of job choices available in the agricultural sector (VFF).
“VEG education tackles these issues head-on through primary school programs, having young people experience the industry through real-world experiences and seeing them fall in love with their fruit and veg.
“During this time, we also created a secondary school program called Food Futures which is really a first of its kind, directly linking our industry into the Secondary School curriculum. Students can now learn more about food, the supply chain, and the fabulous career opportunities it holds.
“These were key pivots in our business which are helping to continue to evolve our business and simultaneously help the industry.”