Virginia Farm Produce is the quintessential example of a business that has evolved from humble beginnings and adapted to industry challenges to become one of the leading potato growing companies in Australia. Now, new recruit Ryan Densley is tasked with leading the South Australian business further into the future.

Fast facts

Name: Ryan Densley
Location: Virginia, SA
Works: Virginia Farm Produce
Grows: Potatoes, onions, almonds

The key to business revolution is evolution, and Virginia Farm Produce is testament to this fact.

The story of the third-generation family farming group begins with Jack Farmer in 1956. A farmer by name and a farmer by nature, Jack originally began growing potatoes and, over the generations, Virginia Farm Produce has expanded to hold a diverse portfolio of potatoes, onions, almonds and livestock.

Since its inception, potatoes have remained the key commodity for the company, and its diversification into other areas resulted from this commitment. Virginia Farm Produce now spreads across 80,000 acres in two growing regions with different micro-climates in South Australia. Potatoes, onions and almonds are grown on the original farming site in Virginia, north of Adelaide, while potatoes and livestock are located some 250 kilometres away in Keith near the Victorian border, to ensure the year-round supply of potatoes and close the production loop for the business.

In the last year, Virginia Farm Produce has welcomed a new addition to the farming family in the form of Commercial Business Manager Ryan Densley. While second-generation grower Barry Farmer and his son Matthew look after the farming side of the business, Ryan is responsible for taking the business forward through the construction of a state-of-the-art facility, spearheading new product development and expanding export markets.

Ryan brings with him a rich history in horticulture, growing up on a Victorian lettuce farm and then working in the wholesale markets in Melbourne and Brisbane. This eventually led to a five-year stint at Mulgowie Farming Company, where Ryan was heavily involved in developing its organic vegetable category and export program.

“I had never actually thought about working with potatoes in my wildest dreams to be honest. When the opportunity to work with Virginia Farm Produce came up, I met the family and was inspired by Barry and Matthew and their vision. I left the loving arms of Mulgowie Farming Company and the rest is history,” Ryan says.

A technological evolution

Forward-thinking has held the family business in good stead, particularly through some of the toughest times in South Australia’s potato industry. When Australia’s then-largest potato supplier Oakville Produce (formerly known as Moraitis Group) entered receivership in 2016, it sparked an era of evolution for Virginia Farm Produce. Now directly exposed to the retailers, the company quickly expanded on a domestic scale.

“That comes with a lot of growing pains,” Ryan says. “What happened with Moraitis and Oakville helped to spur the innovation and evolution of the business. That got us to a stage where we have future-proofed ourselves with land, water, machinery, equipment and people, and the current customer demands that level of expertise in your business. We don’t have customers; we have partners, and they’re talking to us about five- to 10-year goals. It’s been a big shift and that’s really important.”

A key cog in the wheel of innovation at Virginia Farm Produce is the development of a 6,000 square metre purpose-built facility. The blueprint has cherry-picked the best of global technologies to create what will be one of the most advanced robotic washing, packing and storage facilities for potatoes in Australia.

“The new facility is going to be totally batch managed from seed to plate through connectivity, so it will be well-traced. We have to integrate old systems and new systems and get our farming practices scaled up to produce enough product sustainably to fuel the new facility, so that’s going to be really interesting,” Ryan says.

The facility is designed to meet the requirements of new product developments that are already underway at Virginia Farm Produce, which focus on highlighting the flavour and nutritional value of potatoes.

“We’re going to try to help change the face of the potato,” Ryan laughs.

“We’re a bit excited about our microwaveable bag technology, which is a top-seal, flavoured bag that releases ingredients under pressure in the microwave and coats the potatoes. It is a whole new system and it will need a horizontal form fill, so we’re talking high-care facilities.

“We’re also trialling new potato varieties that are flavour-driven and will be more stimulating for the consumer with better taste profiles. By using nutritional callouts on our packaging and trying to grow a better flavoured, good and clean product, we’re hoping to get the message out to households about the value of potatoes.”

“I want to leave the business and the industry in a better place than when I arrived."

Developing new markets

Given the limited expansion of the domestic market, Virginia Farm Produce is keenly aware that export is an essential thread in the fabric of the business’s future. Since joining the company, Ryan has helped to build exports from one customer to many in Fiji and the Cook Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and the Middle East.

The company’s export business was significantly buoyed after securing a tender to send potatoes to South Korea. This developed after a “perfect storm” of events, where South Korea’s domestic production was impacted by severe weather and its supply of imported washed potatoes was hindered by quality issues in the United States.

Enter Virginia Farm Produce, which was called on to deliver nearly 2,000 metric tonnes (or 68 containers) of potatoes to South Korea in the space of three weeks.

“It dislodged their mindset about being dependent on one country, and now they offer up a tender of potatoes where 50 per cent goes to America and 50 per cent goes to Australia,” Ryan explains.

Virginia Farm Produce’s efforts in export and new product development have also overlapped to suit the palettes of domestic and international consumers. Following his participation in the Taste Australia Fresh Produce Display facilitated by AUSVEG and Hort Innovation in Brisbane earlier this year, Ryan is set to launch the flavoured microwaveable bag to the South Korean market in October.

“At the moment our export is really commodity-driven and is probably more opportunistic. We believe the value-added product will give us more stability through market access with different customers and probably a more sustainable program,” he says.

“We’ve had a lot of support through the export programs at AUSVEG and AUSVEG SA. They’ve been great supporters in making sure that we’ve got the right people in the right places to help in those trade negotiations. If I had done that by myself, I would be well behind where I am now.”

Long-term commitment

Following his move to South Australia, Ryan is firm on his commitment to the potato industry for the next decade. He is not only dedicated to the growth and expansion of Virginia Farm Produce, but has also recently joined the AUSVEG SA Board.

“I want to leave the business and the industry in a better place than when I arrived. To be able to help steer potatoes and onions to a better direction and a better return for growers is ultimately what I would like to do,” he says.

Ryan’s priorities range from helping to secure the financial stability of AUSVEG SA so it can have a stronger voice in the industry to increasing consumption of potatoes and vegetables.

“Aligning the potato and onion levy is also one of my bigger, long-term focus points. People need to eat more vegetables, so how do we bring that to the forefront of people’s minds? That costs a lot of money to change people’s habits and how they view their vegetable consumption.”

Back on home soil, Ryan is content in his decision to venture into the potato industry and he has big plans for Virginia Farm Produce.

“I really like the potato category because there are massive opportunities for growth, domestically and globally,” he says.

“Fast forward 10 years and we would hope to be one of the main potato exporters in Australia. We want to grow with our chosen partners in the domestic space and be one of the most innovative potato, onion, almond and livestock farming groups in the country.”

Needless to say, evolution is still on the cards for Ryan Densley and Virginia Farm Produce – but in the meantime, we will just have to watch this space.

This grower profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian potato industry, Potatoes Australia. 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: Andrew Beveridge