Tasmanian-based vegetable growing operation Elphin Grove Farm is evolving, and Matthew Young is driving that shift by connecting with the local community to find out what consumers want from their fresh produce. Matthew spoke to AUSVEG about the changes in his family’s business that led to the farm’s sought-after signature product: popcorn.

Fast facts

Name: Matthew Young
Location: East Sassafras, TAS
Works: Elphin Grove Farm
Grows: Sweet corn, celeriac, peas, beans, potatoes and poppies.

Word of mouth and conversations within a community can spark all kinds of new ideas, particularly in business.

Add to this the importance of food: not only do we need food for everyday sustenance, but it’s also an increasingly important focal point in many social gatherings. Consumers also want to know where their food comes from – the ‘paddock to plate’ movement has slowly gained traction in recent years.

Just ask third-generation vegetable grower Matthew Young from Elphin Grove Farm, located at East Sassafras in Tasmania’s north-west. Matthew and his family run a mixed farming operation that includes growing sweet corn and celeriac for the fresh market, peas and beans for processing, potatoes for the French fry market, poppies for Tasmania’s pharmaceutical market, and sheep and cattle.

Matthew and his wife Ruth, as well as his parents Ian and Lesley, are all Directors of Elphin Grove Farm. The operation has undergone significant changes in recent years, with Matthew taking over more of the farm production eight years ago. It has also transitioned from supplying produce under contract to a direct producer, which presented its challenges.

“We were growing everything under contract for processing companies and now we’re marketing our own produce and putting our own brand on the produce; working at the market and directly marketing into restaurants, greengrocers and supermarkets,” Matthew explains.

“The whole process behind it was a challenge. It’s a big difference when you’ve got to sell something directly as opposed to just through a contract.”

Conversations with vegetable industry members planted the seed of this business transition in the Young family’s mind.

“When McCain’s pulled its potato contracts, we went from growing a large volume of potatoes to growing nothing in the space of six months,” Matthew says.

“This presented an opportunity to pick up the fresh market produce and run with it. It’s been trial and error but through conversations with people and recognising markets, we’ve managed to pick it up.”

Forging connections

Over the past five years, Matthew and his family has regularly attended the Harvest Market in Launceston. The weekly market takes place in the heart of the town, presenting Tasmanian growers and producers with an opportunity to sell directly to consumers. But that is not all: it also helped Matthew to develop new connections that led to Elphin Grove Farm supplying a top-end restaurant in Launceston.

“Through conversations with the chef from Stillwater, we found that he wanted some fresh baby corn to try. So, we picked immature super sweet corn that we grow and sell as mature cobs.

“That went really well so we sourced a baby corn variety and started growing that. It has been ridiculous in the last two seasons; quadrupling in sales this year compared to the year before.”

Following this, Robyn Mayne from gourmet food business ‘A pinch of…’ approached Matthew to ask him about growing popcorn so she could sell it at the market along with her homemade flavourings.

“After a little bit of investigating, it turned out that the baby corn variety that we grow is actually a popping corn. I started taking through the baby corn that wasn’t suitable in terms of size, letting it mature, and then producing popcorn from that,” Matthew says.

At the moment, Matthew is growing small plots of the popping corn. He uses a push-hand planter to put the crops in and hand harvests all the fresh market corn.

“When it comes to popcorn, we do the planting, we handpick it and then husk it all; let it dry a bit and kernel it with a handle machine. With the early season corn, we put it through a dehydrator and dry it to the right moisture level. What we can leave hanging over winter and through summer dries out enough naturally,” Matthew says.

As a result, business is booming for Elphin Grove Farm.

“It’s only a very small enterprise at the moment, but the potential is just going through the roof. I’m turning people away because I can’t supply enough product. It’s outstripped anything that I thought it would be,” he says.

Matthew is hoping to try different popcorn varieties, including butterfly popcorn (the variety used in cinemas) and mushroom popcorn, which has a large, rounder shape that makes it easier to coat with toppings such as chocolate or honey glazes.

“To go to farmers’ markets and have people come up to buy your corn and say that it’s some of the best corn they’ve ever eaten is a confidence boost. It’s receiving confirmation that what I’m doing is right.”

Forward thinking

In addition to expanding its popping corn side of the business, Elphin Grove Farm will undergo further changes over the next decade to maintain its profitability and sustainability as a farming enterprise.

After Matthew’s father Ian retires, employing a full-time staff member to help pick corn will be on the agenda.

“It’s keeping the balance of everything working so we can continue to sell good produce,” Matthew says.

“We’re interested in trialling things and the possibility of picking up other crops, but we have got to be smart about it and not overextend ourselves. Otherwise we start compromising the produce that we’re growing now and getting a really good reputation for.”

For Matthew, the feedback received from restaurants and consumers who cook with and enjoy his produce is very rewarding and makes the venture into marketing worthwhile.

“That’s a big thing we miss out on when growing commodities for frozen products: it goes straight into a truck and disappears, and you rarely hear any feedback,” Matthew says.

“To go to farmers’ markets and have people come up to buy your corn and say that it’s some of the best corn they’ve ever eaten is a confidence boost. It’s receiving confirmation that what I’m doing is right.”

This grower 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 two months, use our online subscription form!

Photography credit: Flick + Dave Photography