Meet the growers: Fresh Leaf herbs

Jan Vydra had no farming experience, but this didn’t prevent him from co-founding one of Australia’s most innovative and sustainable companies growing fresh herbs and leafy greens.

Three farmers picking up leafy vegetables

Fresh Leaf CEO Jan Vydra: “We want our herbs and leafy vegetables to taste sensational.”

How does a person with no background in farming or horticulture become one of Australia’s most successful producers of fresh herbs and leafy vegetables?

Jan Vydra, the CEO of Fresh Leaf, was in his early 20s and working in Victoria’s Yarra Valley when he realised that there was a gap in the market for a specialist herb grower.

“Back in 2007 there was a real change in Australia’s cooking culture,” he says. “Suddenly television was full of cooking shows like MasterChef – and more people were experimenting with their food, not just cooking meat and three veg.”

While many farmers and market gardeners grew fresh herbs, it was often as a sideline.

“Farmers used to grow a little bit of parsley or sage on the side, but it was never their main income,” he says.

Alongside co-founder William Pham, Jan launched Fresh Leaf – a company dedicated to growing popular herbs including coriander, mint and basil as sustainably and efficiently as possible.

“Our brand is very sustainable, and we are constantly looking at innovation,” he says.

Although Jan began his career in food distribution and sales, he did not come from a farming background and had not studied horticulture or agronomy at university.

“My dad is a panel beater and mum is a physiotherapist,” he says. “But I’ve always been interested in farming – although I look at farming a little differently from a lot of other growers.”

Jan’s fascination with fresh herbs was sparked by visiting local food shows, but really gathered pace after he won a Nuffield Scholarship which allowed him to study the latest growing techniques in Israel, Europe and the US.

Today Fresh Leaf is one of the most innovative farming operations in Australia, employing around 145 people at its three locations in Victoria and far north Queensland.

The company is now the largest single supplier of fresh herbs to Coles, as well as supplying airlines, restaurants and the health care sector. Its biggest sellers are basil and coriander.

Two farmers sorting through leafy herbs

In 2016 Fresh Leaf was the recipient of a Coles Nurture Fund which was used to acquire the latest horticultural technology and reduce its use of water; this work culminated in a highly efficient 4000-square-metre indoor hydroponic facility growing a variety of fresh herbs.

“It’s all about increasing intensity – producing more food with less earth,” he says.

According to Jan, while Fresh Leaf continues to pursue the latest growing technology, his team never loses sight of the consumer who is looking for high-quality, sustainable produce.

“Technology is fantastic, but the end product is what people actually consume,” he says. “Our brand is very sustainable, but we also want our herbs and leafy vegetables to taste sensational.”

Basil, oregano, coriander and other fresh products from Fresh Leaf are available at Coles supermarkets nationally.