Raised on the sandy loam soils of South Australia’s Mallee region, 27-year-old Renee Pye can barely recall a time when everyday life didn’t revolve around farming.
“Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the tractor with Dad, working on the back of the digger, driving chaser bins, as well as touring around the region selling potato products with Mum,” she said.
After moving the family from New Zealand in the 1990s, Renee’s industrious parents began the rapid expansion of their farming enterprise, the Pye Group, eager to carve their own niche across the pond.
Thirty years on, the Pyes are considered one of the leading growers of potatoes, carrots and onions in the country, with 40,000ha across 30 farms in Victoria and South Australia, feeding into offshoot companies Zerella Fresh and Parilla Premium Potatoes.
Low carb potatoes opens doors
With a passion for farming seeded at a young age, Renee initially threw herself headfirst into a Bachelor of Marketing & Management, eager to marry innovation with traditional horticultural practice. However, it wasn’t until her stint working in produce sales to the supermarkets, did she realise the full potential of her skillset.
Spending her days organising freight and speaking with customers and suppliers, the gaping disconnect between consumers and the farms that grow the food on their plate became abundantly clear. The issue sat like a stone on her conscience and in 2017 she decided to roll up her sleeves, don the Zerella Fresh uniform and join the family business she knew and loved.
Looking for a project to sink her teeth into, Renee struck gold with Zerella’s newly developed Spud Lite range, a line of products offering 25 per cent less carbohydrates compared to the average potato.
There was a real shift in buying behaviours, with more customers reaching for kale and leafy greens.”
Observing the rising tidal wave of health-conscious consumers, The Pye Group had been strategically positioning themselves to respond to the changing market demands several years earlier.
Changing views on root vegetables
“There was a real shift in buying behaviours, with more customers reaching for kale and leafy greens,” Renee explained.
“Early on, Zerella’s marketing efforts had focused the Spud Lite range on promoting the essential vitamins and minerals found in potatoes to change the narrative around how consumers viewed root vegetables.”
Consumers don’t have a good understanding on how much of what they’re eating is actually all grown here, and how many businesses are part of that process to get it from paddock to plate.”
With Renee back on board as Marketing Director of Zerella Fresh, she was tasked with spearheading a new marketing strategy and production line. The goal was to entice a younger demographic of customers towards the Spud Lite range, which is where her years spent working in sales and market research really came into their own.
“Studies we’ve done show that a lot of people don’t believe that their produce is grown in Australia. Consumers don’t have a good understanding on how much of what they’re eating is actually all grown here, and how many businesses are part of that process to get it from paddock to plate.”
Eager to bridge this knowledge gap Renee and her team dug deep, deciding to broach the issue by turning the spotlight inwards by showcasing the inner workings of Zerella Fresh, their hardworking employees and farming practices.
There’s no secrets around Spud Lite. It is what it is. It’s a low carb potato.”
“We’re quite honest in everything that we do; in making sure that everyone knows what’s happening within the business, which then flows on to the fact there’s no secrets around Spud Lite. It is what it is. It’s a low carb potato.”
This down-to-earth, honest approach has seen the Spud Lite range boom, with the 1.5kg bags and 750g products now hotly contested in supermarket shelves across the country.
Challenging the farming stereotypes
For Renee, this success is born from a deep and intrinsic understanding of the needs and behaviours of their customers as well fostering a good working environment for staff members across the business.
“It’s about playing to your strengths in all areas. Making sure that you’re communicating well with your employees and creating a good culture within your business. This flows into the marketing decisions and creates a positive workforce that everyone is keen to be a part of.”
Her work as an industry advocate and an emerging leader in the horticultural sector over the last five years has not gone unnoticed. In 2020 she was invited to join the board of peak industry body for the Australian vegetable & potato industries, AUSVEG, as a Grower Director and, February 2022 saw her land a coveted spot on The Weekly Times Young Farmers to Watch list.
You don’t need to just be involved in cultivating or harvesting. There’s plenty of opportunities and there’s lots you can look for in this industry.”
Reflecting on the last five years, Renee is encouraged by the number of young men and women emerging through the ranks across Australia’s agricultural sectors. Where once, mentioning of the word ‘agriculture’ may have conjured up a mental image of a dusty, middle-aged man toiling in the fields, she hopes to see others actively challenging this stereotype.
Her advice to up and coming enthusiasts? “You don’t need to just be involved in cultivating or harvesting. There’s plenty of opportunities and there’s lots you can look for in this industry. It’s about lining up your unique skills and experiences within the business and finding ways to make your work interesting to you.”
If you enjoyed this article about Renee, a female doing great things in agriculture, you may also want to read our interview released on International Women’s Day 2022 with farmer and the founder of Motherland Australia, Steph Trethewey. Read more, here.