A third-generation vegetable grower and Managing Director at Velisha Farms, Catherine Velisha has worked tirelessly in recent years to foster a culture of business innovation along with upskilling and education among her employees. Catherine’s leadership and her engagement in the wider vegetable industry was recognised at the 2021 National Awards for Excellence, when she received the Boomaroo Nurseries Women in Horticulture award. Michelle De’Lisle reports.

Catherine Velisha has been working within her family business, Velisha Farms, since she was 19 years old. During that time, Catherine has held several different roles, from picking and packing to sales and account management, before transitioning into the owner and managing director position in 2019.

It has been a busy few years for Catherine. As well as being part of vegetable growing operations at Werribee South, Caldermeade and Shepperton in Victoria – along with a variety of partner growers – Catherine has transformed Velisha Farms as a business, creating a model of continuous improvement, growth and expansion, and investing her employees’ education and skillsets.

In addition, Catherine has established the Velisha Education Group (V.E.G.), a program that assists horticultural enterprises to navigate their way through the Australian business world with a focus on compliance and the changing legal landscape. She also received a Nuffield Scholarship in 2020, with support from Hort Innovation, to undertake research into the need for education within horticultural businesses and how businesses can utilise and facilitate education for their own growth.

Catherine was duly rewarded for her dedication to the horticulture industry and the vegetable sector with the 2021 Boomaroo Nurseries Women in Horticulture award. Catherine was also a nominee for Syngenta Grower of the Year, and in May this year she received the AUSVEG VIC Community Stewardship award for her involvement in the Farms2Schools Program, an innovative six-month program introducing students to growers and agricultural industry workers within Greater Melbourne.

Education focus

Enhancing business capabilities was a reason behind Catherine’s decision to establish the V.E.G. Program. She did this in partnership with corporate lawyer and RMIT University employment and safety law lecturer, Neil Salvador.

“V.E.G. has been created by us, for us. We know the areas of struggle – the areas that are hard within our business and places that need support within our industry. We created V.E.G. to try and find solutions for all businesses within in horticulture and allow us to present to the industry a strength-based and opportunity-focused dialogue,” Catherine says.

Through the initiative, a farm safety program has been created along with a comprehensive online induction that can be used by all horticulture workers and businesses.

V.E.G. also has a program that focuses on the whole supply chain – as Catherine describes it, “from seed to stomach within a living classroom.”

“It’s so great to speak to kids not only about where their food comes from, but to talk about all the career opportunities that are available and encourage them to consider horticulture,” Catherine says.

While her role within Velisha Farms hasn’t changed in recent years, Catherine says her perspective has evolved and matured.

“My leadership style has become a little more well-rounded and holistic – I’m less narrowed in my focus when I make decisions. I look at ways in how Velisha Farms can evolve and grow, but within the context in how we can also contribute to the industry,” she explains.

“I think what drives me most in my role is trying to facilitate my team members to be able to step up and reach their full potential. I focus on giving them the ability to experience and learn in different ways; not only within our business, but also through different avenues presented to us by industry.”

Again, education is key at Velisha Farms.

“As a business, we’ve always been passionate about training our staff up and creating different pathways for them; particularly in the leadership management model and we really see that there’s a need for that within the horticulture industry, especially in middle management,” Catherine says.

“So, V.E.G. is focusing on leadership and that kind of skillset for those types of members in the business. There’s also a really strong safety slant to V.E.G., because that’s another area we’re feeling where we fall down a little bit as an industry.

“We do need to hold some responsibility for that, but more importantly the courses or the programs that have been run have never really been unique or specific to the needs of the industry. That’s why we created V.E.G. because it has that ‘by us for us’ platform. We understand the gaps, the needs – where we struggle ourselves in business. To facilitate change, you need to create a product that identifies what the gap is and not just something that is cookie cutter or standard.”

“I think what drives me most in my role is trying to facilitate my team members to be able to step up and reach their full potential."

Veg on the small screen

Last year, Hort Innovation presented Catherine with the opportunity to be featured on Channel 10’s cooking television series My Market Kitchen – an experience she really enjoyed.

“Being growers and consumers, we just thought it was a natural fit. It gives us a great platform to showcase horticulture and vegetables in a vibrant, exciting way,” Catherine says.

“We are passionate about showing people how to cook vegetables in different delicious ways and encourage more people to think about vegetables as a main ingredient, not just a side.

“I think cooking shows let us, as producers, talk to our customers hearts and bond over what really is the cornerstone of all life – food! We grow it, you eat it, we eat it, and everyone loves it!”

Raising a voice

Catherine enjoys the networking and learning opportunities that industry engagement provides. She also believes it is important to have a voice or create a voice for those can’t speak up on industry issues and influence change.

“I think that’s probably where that driving force is. I feel that the conversation around horticulture is quite tiresome sometimes in the media; I don’t think it shows any opportunities that are available in what is a multi-faceted industry. I think sometimes it is a bit tired and a bit negative, and people just tune out,” Catherine says.

“It’s about trying to speak about it differently. I’m probably a little bit of a different face, so that sometimes helps with messaging.

“The other real thing that drives us is to make sure that our leaders within our business have a platform to have their voices heard.

“There is an opportunity to make sure that we’ve got multicultural faces and voices, and different genders and different life experiences at those tables talking about greater industry standards and issues – and not just from the same voices that there have been historically.”

The final word

Catherine was humbled to receive the Boomaroo Nurseries Women in Horticulture award, and she credits her team for her industry success.

“Winning any award is nice from a personal point of view, but what I enjoy is the pride that my team members get from that,” she says.

“It reinforces what they have achieved and the direction they are taking together. It’s a really good milestone on the journey that we can all point to and say, ‘we’re working towards the right direction.’

“It’s a little island in the middle of the ocean that you get to have a little rest on – and then swim to the next one.”

This profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian vegetable industry, Vegetables Australia. If you’d like to subscribe to receive a new edition of Vegetables Australia in your mailbox every three months, use our online subscription form!

Images courtesy of Catherine Velisha.