Catching up with… Mitchell East
Works at: Willarra Gold
Location: Manjimup, WA
Hi Mitch, thank you for your time today!
Firstly, can you please tell us about Willarra Gold and the produce that you grow?
Willarra Gold is a third-generation business consisting of myself, my sister, and my parents. We are based in Manjimup, Western Australia.
It has a long history of many different vegetable lines over the years, which include onions, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and pumpkins; just to name a few. In recent years, we have been diversifying into avocados, passionfruit and processing, while still growing some broccoli and running sheep over our two properties.
What are you up to now? As Manager of Willarra Gold, what are your responsibilities?
I currently handle all things passionfruit, which includes growing, harvesting, packing, processing, distribution, and marketing. My role sees me involved in all aspects of the business. As a family-run operation, each person is required to be across each product we produce and know how each step works. This allows us to step in and out of many roles as required.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your business?
For us, COVID has been a forced reset. Once we went into lockdown and all the craziness started to unfold, I found myself having to take a step back and reevaluate what my priorities were in work. We saw drastic changes in consumer trends, and this has some benefits through quick sales of produce. But long-term, we saw a downturn in passionfruit sales.
We set up a COVID-Safe Plan for each staff member and guest on the property to follow. This included regular hand washing, social distancing, hand sanitizer stations, site reporting and cleaning protocols. As time goes on, we are seeing staff availability being less reliable so we are currently working with local hostels to have a plan for when we need workers and communicating with other famers so we can share staff if needed.
You completed Growing Leaders in 2018. What did you take away from the program? Is there anything that you learnt that you are applying to your role and the business today?
Growing Leaders was a real eye-opener for me. It was a really demanding program that took me out of my comfort zone.
I regularly think about how it gave me the confidence in myself to aspire for better outcomes. It made me realise that if I wanted to do something, I just had to get up and do it – seems so obvious now, but at the time it helped change my perspective.
It also gave me some incredible bonds with other people I would have never met otherwise. I still talk to many of them and it’s great to see them doing great things within our industry.
At the time of Growing Leaders, I was looking into processing of passionfruit waste and I was unsure of its viability. If I wasn’t part of the program, I don’t know if I would have gone ahead with it –Growing Leaders gave me that confidence kick I needed in order to make it happen.
You’re a member of the Vegetable Strategic Industry Advisory Panel (SIAP). Why did you decide to join the panel, and what are the benefits of being involved in vegetable industry activities?
I was approached by another SIAP member to see if I was interested, as there was not going to be any members from Western Australia on the panel. I hadn’t really thought about it – but after spending some time to understand the process, I felt I could be of value and it be of value to me.
I have been involved on other committees for some time now and the long-term benefits are that you get to be a part of making crucial decisions for your industry, plus you get to meet some of the top people in your industry and become friends with them.
The level of professionalism you come to expect helps you in your own business as you can use what you learn in future decision-making and negotiations. Ultimately if you want to invoke positive change and be a part of future decisions, you have to show up and be in the room.
Where can you be found when not working on the farm?
As is the nature of farming, those times time are few and far between. But when I do take breaks, my partner and I like to head off to somewhere coastal to camp.
Our favourite place in Denmark in WA – it’s quiet and relaxing with amazing beaches, great hikes and nice wineries. It’s nice to unwind and read a book on the beach for a couple of days.
One last thing – where can we find out more about Willarra Gold?
Each week, the Weekly Update will be featuring a member of the vegetable industry. Whether you are a grower, a researcher or work in the supply chain, this is a chance to showcase the different roles and areas within horticulture. If you – or someone you know – would like to be involved, please email Michelle De’Lisle at email@example.com.