Generation next: Jennifer’s rapid rise into protected cropping
Jennifer Hulme is Assistant Grower at Family Fresh Farms, an intensive glasshouse operation located on the New South Wales Central Coast. Despite being in her early twenties with no farming background, Jennifer is kicking goals in the vegetable industry. In this column, Vegetables Australia speaks to Jennifer about her current role, her passion for the industry and journey so far.
Tucked away in Peats Ridge is Family Fresh Farms, which consists of two 2.5-hectare high tech glasshouses. The operation grows mini snacking cucumbers, known as ‘Qukes’, using a highwire, climate-controlled system and its produce is distributed to major supermarkets around Australia.
At just 22 years old, Jennifer Hulme is the Family Fresh Farms’ Assistant Grower. She supports the Head Grower in ensuring all operations on the farm are as efficient and effective as possible. This involves everything from managing a team of 70-plus seasonal workers, to monitoring and controlling the climate in the glasshouses.
“The Qukes grow incredibly fast and are a very labour-intensive crop, but it always keeps us busy, all 365 days a year,” Jennifer says.
“Climate control is a huge part of my role. Everything can be adjusted, including temperature, humidity, irrigation, CO2 and ventilation.
“There is also scouting the crop and implementing suitable integrated pest management (IPM) practices where necessary, fertiliser regimes, and boiler operation.”
“This comes with huge responsibility. On some days when you’re the only grower on duty, it is down to you to make the correct decisions and essentially keep the crop alive. It keeps you on your toes, but I absolutely love the challenge.”
Journey into horticulture
Jennifer became interested in agriculture in high school when she chose it as an elective for her final two years.
“I absolutely loved it. From there, it made sense to continue this interest into university where I studied a Bachelor of Agriculture majoring in plant production at the University of New England,” she explains.
“Living on the coast meant horticulture was the main farming enterprise near me so for my university work experience, I found Family Fresh through a recommendation from a previous vegetable farm I worked at.
“It was nothing like I could have imagined, and I adored my work experience there. I was lucky enough that they offered me a job after that, and a career in horticulture was pretty much a done deal from there!”
"On some days when you’re the only grower on duty, it is down to you to make the correct decisions and essentially keep the crop alive. It keeps you on your toes, but I absolutely love the challenge.”
Although most of Jennifer’s general ag background information stems from higher education, she has learned more specific horticultural knowledge from working in the industry.
“The degree was brilliant at teaching me the basics and the systems involved in cropping, but nothing beats the understanding you gain from experience. It is daunting starting in a role like this with such limited past knowledge and experience, but you amaze yourself with how fast you learn,” Jennifer says.
She is also learning from an innovative, forward-thinking business.
“One of the things that Family Fresh does best is keeping up-to-date with new technology,” Jennifer says.
“For example, this year we have started using iPads in the glasshouses and packing shed to see live updates on progress, yield and quality. It syncs automatically to a Google Drive that we can all access and these completion status updates have dramatically improved our decision-making abilities regarding labour.
“We are also always looking at the newest climate sensors, machinery, and equipment. There is the mentality here that anything that can improve the farm that little bit is worth looking into, and I think that’s great. It keeps us in front and producing to the best of our ability.”
However, Jennifer believes there should be more focus on the sustainability and environmental side of horticulture production.
“The sheer volume of single-use plastics I see many farms go through is crazy, and I just know there must be a better way – whether it’s introducing more cardboard packaging for produce instead of plastic punnets, finding a second use for growing slabs, or just finding a way to reduce overall on-farm waste,” she says.
“Understandably, the solution also has to be economically viable for the farm so more research and trials into what could work and what won’t, is so important. The earlier we can begin developing and integrating more sustainable processes, the better.”
Shedding the stigma
Jennifer thinks the reason why a lot of women don’t investigate farming as a career path is because of the stigma surrounding it, and that it is viewed as ‘a man’s job.’
“While it is true that this kind of role is still male dominated, there are plenty of opportunities for interested women too!” Jennifer points out.
“Horticulture – and protected cropping in particular – has such a diverse range of jobs available, from labour managers to crop specialists to technology whizzes. So much of the industry is becoming modernised and automated, and filling roles with young, technologically minded people is crucial. I promise you there’s so much more to this industry than even I realised.”
Jennifer says there are many facets of the vegetable industry that she loves, including its diversity.
“Think about how much produce you see in the supermarkets and how all that food has to be grown somewhere. Each crop is so unique and requires so many different processes, so it’s fun finding the one most suited to you,” she says.
“There’s also so much variety in the individual roles on each farm, which brings together an amazing range of skilled people. The labour force is a huge reason I love this industry so much.
“I can honestly say I’ve never met such motivated, hard-working people in all my life, and it inspires me every day to do better. There’s also so many opportunities to travel and learn and experience new things, which is amazing.”
Jennifer adds that there is never a dull day at work.
“Maintaining enthusiasm can be tough sometimes because the hours are long, and it definitely becomes more of a lifestyle than a job. But stepping back and reminding yourself of how far you’ve come always helps.
“The Vanuatu seasonal workers employed here also make a huge difference. They come to work with a huge smile on their faces and give it their all every single day – it’s incredible and lifts the mood instantly.”
The final word
Jennifer is proud to reach the Assistant Grower position in one of the most intensive and fast-paced glasshouse farms in Australia.
“To be 22 with no background in agriculture and land a role like this fresh out of university is still something I pinch myself over,” she admits.
“As well as this though, the growth I have seen in myself over the last year is something I couldn’t have dreamed of. I was a shy person when I first started and now I give speeches in front of the entire workforce with ease.
“I’m so much more confident in my decision-making and feel like this job has matured me so much. It’s been incredibly fulfilling working in this industry, so here’s to many more years!”
This Women in Horticulture 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, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your postal address.
Photography credit: AUSVEG.