Located in Western Australia’s Manjimup region, Willarra Gold is a thriving mixed cropping enterprise run by the East family. In this edition, Michelle De’Lisle speaks to co-owner Lauren East about her role within the family business and the vegetable industry, and the advice she has for young people eyeing off a career in the horticulture space.

Willarra Gold is a third-generation family-owned farm and business located near Manjimup, Western Australia. The operation currently produces passionfruit, avocados and sheep on around 1,000 acres. The farm has a diverse history of growing vegetables from brassicas through to potatoes.

At the forefront of Willarra Gold is Lauren East. Lauren is a partner in the business alongside her parents Garry and Tracey, and has a hands-on managerial role that varies from day-to-day.

“My primary responsibilities are running the livestock program and growing avocados, which requires me to supervise staff, planting of trees, weed spraying, quality control, harvesting, administration – just to name a few,” Lauren says.

Leading the way

Lauren’s involvement in the vegetable industry escalated when she stepped off the farm in 2015 and participated in Growing Leaders, a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Vegetable Fund.

“The Growing Leaders program was a great course that helped to equip me with skills and networking that could benefit our business,” Lauren says.

“It was one of my first leadership courses, which gave me the confidence in public speaking and opened doors through networking. It is an excellent starting block, and something I recommend to any younger members in the industry.

“One of the most rewarding outcomes from participating in Growing Leaders was the opportunity to become a vegetablesWA committee member.”

Being on the vegetablesWA Committee of Management is highly beneficial for Lauren and her horticultural career.

“As the only female member of the Committee, it is rewarding to have a voice and an opinion in the industry,” she says.

“It’s great to get off the farm and catch up with other members of the industry who may be doing things differently to you. I enjoy being part of a group where I can have a say and have the chance to make a difference. In an ever-changing industry, organisations like vegetablesWA are a great asset for growers to call upon to share information on any changes that could affect or benefit them.

“These could be changes to the horticulture award, Freshcare information updates, benchmarking, new law updates, courses and export ready workshops – these are just a few topics that could benefit any grower to improve their own farming practices.”

In addition, Lauren has participated in other vegetable industry activities such as the 2017 Vegetable Young Grower Industry Leadership and Development Mission, which saw a group of 10 young growers travel to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. This was a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Vegetable Fund and facilitated by AUSVEG.

“It’s great to get off the farm and catch up with other members of the industry who may be doing things differently to you. I enjoy being part of a group where I can have a say and have the chance to make a difference."

Production challenges

The horticulture industry has many challenges, Lauren says, but the labour shortage due to COVID has been Willarra Gold’s most pressing issue throughout 2020 and into this year.

“We usually grow broccoli in the summer and autumn months but decided not to plant this season as it was too risky if we didn’t have access to staff,” Lauren explains.

“That’s the thing with vegetables – they’re not forgiving; you only have a small window to harvest. With broccoli, it can be a marketable piece of produce one day and unsellable the next.

“Due to the backpacker shortage, we decided to focus all our energies into our fruit and sheep production this year.”

Despite these challenges, Lauren thoroughly enjoys working on the farm and the variety it brings.

“Working outdoors is what I love the most. I go a little stir crazy if I’m indoors for too long,” she says.

“My greatest enjoyment is working the land to watch something grow and flourish to then harvest that crop. That is really rewarding.”

Breaking the stereotype

Throughout her career, Lauren has had to overcome the perception of women in the industry.

“Farming is a male-dominated field. It is something that I have personally had to overcome to forge my own path within our business and the industry,” she explains.

“As a woman in the industry, you have to not only challenge this stereotype – but smash it. There are so many great options for women within the industry and I believe encouragement at a school level – where it is taught as a subject – is a great place to start.

Lauren’s tip for a successful career in horticulture is to join industry organisations.

“These are guaranteed to give great network opportunities where you can gain so much from other industry members,” she says.

In the meantime, Lauren is continuing to achieve her horticulture goals and paving the way for the next generation of growers.

“I am proud that I am inspiring the next generation – my nieces and cousins – to consider pursuing a role in the industry,” she says.

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 Lauren East.