In 1990, Mark Pye relocated to South Australia from New Zealand at the tender age of 22. Now Managing Director of both Parilla Premium Potatoes and Zerella Fresh, Mark has gradually built a large horticulture empire with his businesses boasting 350 staff located around the state. AUSVEG spoke to the New Zealand-born potato grower about his achievements, the challenges he has faced and his plans for the future of the businesses.

Fast facts

Name: Mark Pye
Location: Parilla, SA
Works: Parilla Premium Potatoes, Zerella Fresh
Grows: Potatoes, carrots, onions

Mark Pye’s passion for potatoes stems all the way back to the South Island of New Zealand when, as a child, he helped his parents grow the humble spud.

Mark and his wife Fiona immigrated to South Australia from the Canterbury Plains, south of Christchurch, in 1990. The pair realised Australia had a much larger domestic market than New Zealand, therefore there were more opportunities to grow potatoes despite the extreme climate.

The Pyes then established Parilla Premium Potatoes in Parilla, a town nestled in the Murray Mallee region about 225 kilometres east of Adelaide.

The hard work was just beginning, with Mark buying the business Zerella Fresh around five years later to expand existing marketing opportunities. He was duly rewarded for his dedication and innovation to the businesses in 2001, taking home the Young Leader gong at the South Australian Food Industry Awards.

Mark is Managing Director of both Parilla Premium Potatoes and Zerella Fresh, which directly employs a workforce that is diverse in cultures, demographics and skills across various departments located throughout South Australia (including a packing shed in Virginia).

Thanks to his parents, Mark learnt about all facets of the potato at an early age.

“I grew a passion of growing potatoes and could see the benefits of attention to detail, from seed selection, land and the steps through to harvest and the rewards when it is done right,” he says.

Active involvement

Mark says that as Managing Director of the businesses, he has the ultimate responsibility to his family, employees and customers to ensure that they are meeting their commitments and vision.

The father of three lives on-farm and plays an active role in the daily operations at Parilla, checking on both the crops and the packed produce.

“I have my pilot’s licence and own a plane, which enables me to fly myself and our agronomy team to each of our growing regions every week so that we can inspect the crops and ensure we are responsive to both market and climatic needs,” Mark says.

“A significant amount of time is also devoted to meeting and working with our customers and suppliers. Every opportunity I get, I like to look at our produce in supermarkets to ensure I understand what the customer is seeing.

“At least once per year I like to get overseas to understand industry trends and opportunities. I especially enjoy having the opportunity to visit the businesses of the world’s best and most innovative growers and packers.”

Mark says he was always meant to be a farmer – whether it was growing potatoes or any other product. He also believes there are numerous roles available for younger people wishing to join the potato industry, and these are not just on the farming side.

“The potato industry is diverse with a huge range of opportunities including manual roles, tradesmen, equipment operators, specialists, administration, IT and management,” Mark says.

“We have many examples of employees who have progressed from low-skilled entry positions to senior managers with real autonomy.

“The potato industry is hi-tech, utilising the latest available equipment and scientific practices available. It is also a worldwide industry, providing young motivated people with the opportunity to expand their experience in many different countries and climates.”

"I grew a passion of growing potatoes and could see the benefits of attention to detail, from seed selection, land and the steps through to harvest and the rewards when it is done right."

Grower challenges

Like all growers, Mark says nature is always the biggest factor in determining many input needs and the resulting quality and yield.

Another challenge is keeping abreast of the latest advancements in agronomy, technology and product presentation.

“Nothing stays the same for long and the pace of change is accelerating as growers look to create a point of difference, manage cost pressures and succeed in very competitive markets,” Mark says.

“Today, as a grower, we need to be providing the consumer with a positive sensory experience while providing convenience and value. This needs to be done consistently and reliably every day.”

The ambitious grower and businessman says he is lucky to be surrounded by family and a team that shares his drive to deliver on commitments and achieve success.

“Our suppliers, many of whom have been with me from the start, are also fully aligned,” Mark says.

“It is with the support of my team and suppliers that we have been able to achieve a vertically integrated business that supplies quality produce 12 months of the year.”

An exciting future

Mark credits his immigration to Parilla from New Zealand 27 years ago, and how far his businesses have progressed over that period, as his proudest achievement.

There have also been some milestones along the way, including the 2001 Young Leader award and the creation of a unique potato brand.

“If I had to pick a single achievement to highlight, it would be the creation of the SpudLite brand of potatoes,” Mark says.

“SpudLite is a healthy, and most importantly, great tasting option that gives people the permission to enjoy more potatoes.”

However, Mark is most excited about the future vision of his businesses.

“Our ultimate goal as a grower is to be the market’s preferred potato supplier both today and for the long-term,” he says.

“This requires a commitment to be on the ball today plus continued investment in fresh land, water, varieties, technology and people.

“I look forward to my kids, Renee and Lachie, taking on more senior roles within the business. I am sure that the combination of growing up entrenched in the family business, combined with their studies and external experiences, will enable them to contribute and challenge us to achieve bigger and better goals.”

This grower profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian potato industry, Potatoes 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 Potatoes Australia in your mailbox every two months, use our online subscription form!

Photography credit: Jane Wilson Photography