Eating our greens is often hailed as the key to good health but Catherine Velisha’s influence goes well beyond her own dinner plate, or any one farm. She’s doing her part to spread that message by making vegetables the star of their own tv show and a popular choice in schools by teaching the next generation about these superfoods.
Under her vision – broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce, celery and spring onions are celebrated. As a strong advocate for horticulture as we’ve never seen it before, she is taking her role as managing director of Velisha Farms to the next level.
The business is located at Werribee South, only 30 minutes outside Melbourne. Catherine says that’s where the first misconceptions about her start – she doesn’t drive a tractor or spend any time getting her hands dirty.
“I’ve been working in the business since I was 19, so that’s about 20 years now. It started with on-the-floor jobs like packing.” Catherine worked up the ranks and eventually bought the business from her dad.
“People do just want you to be a farmer on the land. They love the nostalgia around that. I can see there’s some disappointment sometimes!”
Her main role is making sure fresh veggies hit the supermarket shelves where we can all buy them.
It’s vegetables all the way. The basic lines. But during Covid we really saw the reverence over them. People going back to cooking and traditional purchases.”
Catherine’s mission is to make that excitement around vegetables a permanent fixture in our lives.
Opening the doors
She’s launched VEG Education as a sister company. It’s a registered training organisation that praises vegetables to groups of school students.
We had about 3,000 primary school students through our doors in less than 24 months.”
Catherine sees kids as tomorrow’s customers and believes it’s crucial they are aware of what goes into growing our food. The regular feedback she receives usually relates to the cost of fruit and vegetables, but her education program is changing that.
“People would actually be surprised how cheap they are. Like raspberries – they have to be picked by hand. You need to twist them but if you twist too hard, they’re crushed – wasted. So, when you go into the supermarket and think ‘Geez, it’s $3.50 for some raspberries’. When you actually realise, I think you wonder how they are only $3.50!”
The students love hearing stories like why cauliflowers turn yellow on a hot day and why shops won’t sell produce with a mark on it. It’s a fun way to challenge consumer habits and the status quo.
Even better, if she manages to recruit some future horticulturalists. “No one wants to do anything these days unless they’re saving the world. So, I implore them.”
You actually are saving the world if you’re in control of food production. This is the industry.
“It’s nice seeing the penny drop.” It’s not uncommon for the talk to end with kids munching on a raw Brussels sprout and enjoying it!
Behind the scenes
If you’re not close enough for a school visit, Catherine has put together some behind the scenes videos about how vegetables are grown as part of her VEG TV.
“We grab a bunch of spring onions off the shelf all the time for $1.50. I just wanted to explain it all so they understand how they got there. When you really understand that if a spring onion has a mark on it, and that mark is from a hail storm, that no one could do anything about.
“How can that be something that’s not suitable for market? I’d love people to drop their perfectionism around it. Lettuce will get some brown on it when it’s out in 45 degree, meanwhile you and I are sitting in the air-con. But then the next day, no one will buy it because it doesn’t look good.”
While on paper, Catherine has diversified the business incredibly well and secured a whole new audience for her produce, she says it has been challenging taking on a leadership role as a woman. “It’s a very competitive space. Until recently, I’d always just been someone’s daughter in the meetings. Now I wasn’t. I wanted to find a competitive advantage.”
Catherine says taking the reins on the family business has given a new freshness to her career – pun intended. So, let’s celebrate our greens – even if they look a little rough around the edges.