For over 30 years, Carmel Ingram has worked alongside her husband Keith to manage the packhouse operation at Bonaccord Ingram, one of Victoria’s largest vegetable growing operations. In 2019, Carmel was recognised for her contribution to the horticulture industry when she received the Boomaroo Nurseries Women in Horticulture award at Hort Connections. Michelle De’Lisle reports.

In her own words, Carmel Ingram prefers to work under the radar. As a member of one of Victoria’s biggest vegetable growing operations, Bonaccord Ingram in East Gippsland, Carmel manages the packhouse and oversees a team that can fluctuate from around 65 to up to 160 employees, depending on the time of the season.

However, Carmel couldn’t stay out of the limelight forever. Her hard work and dedication to the Victorian vegetable industry was recognised at the AUSVEG VIC Awards for Excellence in May this year when she took home the Boomaroo Nurseries Women in Horticulture award. This led to Carmel being nominated at the 2019 National Awards for Excellence at Hort Connections, and much to her surprise, she received that accolade too.

“To be one of 13 nominees, I found it a real privilege to be recognised,” Carmel says.

“It was an absolute delight and a total surprise to win the regional award, but to win the national award as well – I’m still trying to get my head around it.”

Farming journey

Carmel didn’t always live and work on a farm. In 1980, she married a farmer, Keith Ingram – one of five boys, four of whom are still working at Bonaccord Ingram today – and knew very little about agriculture or horticulture.

“I’ve grown with the business and have learnt as we’ve gone along. I’ve had very good mentors in the family that I married into, and have gained my practical on-farm knowledge and advice from them. As the business has evolved, we’ve made mistakes but have learnt from them,” Carmel says.

One of the biggest changes to the business occurred in 1985 when Bonaccord Ingram transitioned from a dairy farm into a vegetable growing operation. This was due to the falling returns on milk production, while there was strong growth in the vegetable sector, particularly in crops such as broccoli.

Fast forward to today, and Bonaccord Ingram has evolved into a 3,000-acre growing operation with crops including broccoli, carrots, cauliflowers, spinach, mescalin, cabbages (red and green), sweet corn and beans. There are also cattle and sheep on the property as well as barley crops. In addition, the business has around 50 trucks to carry its produce up and down the east coast.

In her role as Packhouse Manager, Carmel oversees the grading and quality assessment of the produce along with the cutting, washing and packing that occurs.

Over the years, she has been a mentor for her employees as well as counsellor, and if that’s not enough, Carmel sits on the business’ health and safety committee.

“To be one of 13 nominees, I found it a real privilege to be recognised"

Teamwork the key

The challenges that Carmel and Keith face stem from people management, especially in peak production season when staff numbers are at their highest. This is overcome by the pair taking the time to communicate with their staff and providing English lessons for those employees from the language other than English community.

“Ninety per cent of your problems stem from a lack of communication, and with a lot of foreign labour, you’ve really got to take the time to communicate and find different ways to communicate. Some of these people might not be able to understand English, but they can read and write English, so texting them on the phone and things like that are important,” Keith says.

Speaking to Keith and Carmel, there is a great sense that family and working as a team drive Bonaccord Ingram’s success.

“We always emphasise that family is important. It keeps us grounded,” Carmel says.

Family also underpins the operation’s growth; it was part of the reason why the business exited the dairy industry. To financially sustain four families, the farm had to transition to vegetables. But it’s not all about money, as Keith explains.

“We get a sense of pride to see the family business keep growing,” he says.

“It’s not all about the dollars. You’re doing it because you love it. The business is the family and the family’s grown – plus we all get along and it’s successful.”

Carmel and Keith are starting to slowly step away from the business and let the next generation take the reins. It is emerging, with the couple’s daughter Anita returning to the farm earlier this year to take up a position in quality assurance.

“I can’t imagine Keith will ever retire as such, but we’re looking at just taking a little bit more time off each year,” Carmel explains.

“To start handing the reins over, you’ve got to step back a little bit and not be about so much. That’s my plan anyway!”

The final word

Carmel’s advice to women looking for a career in the horticulture industry is to ‘get your hands dirty’.

“Get down there and do your work experience to start with. Doing the manual work to start with, whatever it may be packing, sorting, tractor driving – if that’s the line you want to go into, you’ve got to have that practical experience,” she says.

And as a leader and mentor at Bonaccord Ingram, Carmel has wise words for others who have dreams of following in her footsteps.

“I think it’s important to build a support network and have a mentor or advisers around you. Because as you mature, you’ll hold yourself in good stead and it will pay off.

“If you have the passion, it becomes rewarding as opposed to being just a paid job. And it’s two-fold:  by having that mentorship, you yourself will grow into becoming a mentor.”

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 two months, use our online subscription form!