Farming is in Craig Arnott’s DNA – as soon as he left school, the Victorian vegetable grower started working on his family’s property. His wife Anne then joined the family business, and alongside Craig’s father, brother and sister, they have built a business that employs around 50 people throughout the year. The couple spoke to AUSVEG about their journey and the changes they have witnessed along the way.

Fast facts

Name: Craig Arnott
Location: Clyde, VIC
Works: Arnotts Vegetable Farms
Grows: Asian vegetables, spring onions

Craig Arnott is a fourth generation grower who today operates a 170-acre spring onion and Asian vegetable-growing operation in Clyde, located on Melbourne’s south-eastern fringe.

However, Arnotts Vegetables Farms almost didn’t eventuate. Craig’s father David was ready to finish farming on the original 20-acre property, but after leaving school at 15 years of age, Craig’s passion for vegetable growing was evident. As a result, David purchased another property which was expanded again years later.

“I was 17 and he virtually set up this area here and said, ‘You can farm that,’” Craig says.

“I started farming; Mum and Dad kept working, my brother came home on the farm and it just grew and grew.”

Craig’s mother, Effie, was the matriarch of the family until she passed away in 2002. Although times have changed since then, Effie has left a legacy within the business that is continuing today and will do so in years to come.

Arnotts Vegetable Farms now produces 15 lines of vegetables throughout the year, specialising in spring onions and Asian vegetables.

Focus on sustainability

Since establishing the business in 1981, Craig and Anne have witnessed numerous changes to irrigation, machinery and precision planting, plus the introduction of mobile phones and computers into the business.

“Farmers are becoming business people, going from a small farm to a business that generates in a day what we used to generate in a year,” Craig says.

Despite many new developments, the biggest on-farm change has been the implementation of a water recycling system in the region.

“Recycled water would be by far the biggest asset that I’ve seen for this area,” Craig says.

“It’s an insurance policy that means, after four generations, we are now drought-proof. People talk about food security: Governments need to work on getting this water that runs out to the ocean back to farmers and there’s our food security.

“We need to be wiser with the assets we have, which is water and re-using it. Farmers need water. Give us roads, power and water and we can farm. Take them away, and we’ve got nothing.”

"It's not just me - it's a family business: my brother, my father, my sister and Anne; there's five of us. It's not about me, it's us. You're only as good as the people around you."

Global inspiration

Both Craig and Anne acknowledge the benefits of implementing technology in their growing operation, and this has been inspired by going abroad and seeing what is on offer. Craig still benefits from his attendance on an AUSVEG grower study tour in 2009, which visited farms and industry stakeholders in England, Germany and Holland.

“A lot of the procedures we have implemented into our program have been instigated from my trip to Holland with the addition of Arnotts Vegetable Farms purchasing our spring onion harvester and seed planter. In doing so we also had our own bunching line made to suit our operation,” Craig says.

Meanwhile, Anne visited Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan in September as part of the 2017 Women’s Industry Leadership and Development Mission (VG15703), a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Vegetable Fund.

Attending this mission provided Anne with a confidence-boost in her capability as a member of the vegetable industry.

“It gave you a feeling that you are worth something and not to put yourself down,” Anne says.

“I felt like I did have something to give to each and every lady that was on the trip and you don’t realise it until you’re actually in that situation.”

The mission gave Anne an opportunity to network with the other women in the veg industry. One Tasmanian participant and her husband have already visited Arnotts Vegetable Farms, and Anne now shares a close networking connection with fellow Victorian grower Tash Shields from Peninsula Organics.

“We have formed a relationship. It’s different because she’s organic and we’re standard, but we can discuss lots of things and we can help each other,” Anne says.

Craig was quick to acknowledge the significant role his wife plays in the business.

“I think what Anne and a few of the other ladies would’ve found is that they probably don’t realise how important their role is in the family operation. When they go overseas, they realise that they influence the farm far greater than what they think they do.”

Grower challenges

Staff and labour costs are challenges faced by many growers, and the Arnotts are no exception. Keeping up with the rise of utilities is also a problem.

“The cost of power, water, crop protection and fuel rise constantly – but vegetable prices have hardly changed. This causes a strain on the cash flow within the business,” Craig says.

“You try trimming the bone but it’s to the point where I don’t know if we can do much less than what we do. We have the agronomist in on a weekly basis, we try to only spray where we have to and we try to only fertilise where it’s needed.”

Maintaining a high quality of produce is also a challenge for the Arnotts.

“Now there are such high standards for quality – it’s almost trying to have the perfect product all the time, which is impossible,” Craig says.

To assist with this, Craig and Anne have implemented a Quality Assurance HACCP plan and its requirements into their growing operation.

“We can trace back for over a decade on every little square, every 20 by 10 metres of the entire farm so we’ve got the record of every application, every harvest, everything that has been done on the property,” Craig says.

“It’s good for your records, and it makes you understand what you can do better.”

Family tribute

Craig took home the Grower of the Year accolade at the AUSVEG VIC Awards for Excellence in April, and was nominated for Grower of the Year at Hort Connections 2017. He credits his success in the vegetable industry to Anne and his family, his workers and the generations before him.

“It’s not just me – it’s a family business: my brother (Gavin), my father (David), my sister (Wendy) and Anne; there’s five of us. It’s not about me, it’s us. You’re only as good as the people around you,” Craig says.

“Being recognised was also nice for the workers. I’ve got no idea how we got nominated, but it was an honour.”

The 55-year-old’s passion for the industry is as strong as ever.

“I think no matter how good you think you’re doing, you always learn something new and every day is a new challenge,” Craig says.

“As a farmer, you’re blessed that you can go out and do what you want to do. We plant what we want to plant and grow what we want to grow, so you’ve got flexibility in your work life.”

This grower profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian vegetable industry, Vegetables Australia, and was featured in the AUSVEG Weekly Update published 26 March 2019. If you’d like to subscribe to receive a new edition of Vegetables Australia in your mailbox every two months, use our online subscription form!

Photography credit: Luka Kauzlaric/Release Images