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Migrants and ‘Masterchef effect’ contribute to herb grower's success

Regional Showcase

Regional Showcase 2019“Basil, chives, oregano, sage, dill…” Holla-Fresh managing director Ian Lines waves an arm around the warm greenhouse, with rows and rows of leafy green herbs stretching as far as the eye can see.

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Tucked away in the small town of Tantanoola is one of the Limestone Coast region’s quiet success stories, a hydroponic herb business going from strength to strength.

Investing in biomass technology and opening up employment opportunities for migrant workers has paid off for the family-owned business, which has become one of the largest greenhouse growers of herbs in Australia.

With a recent Federal Government push to increase skilled migrant growth in regional areas as part of the national population plan, Ian is vocal about the importance of such workers to his business.

“The horticultural industry in Australia relies on the migrant workforce, no doubt about it,” Ian says. “It is getting harder and harder to get people who want to do the mundane work, that repetitive packing work.”

Small towns like Millicent would strongly benefit under the plan, Ian believes, if groups of families were resettled together.

“It’s also important to match the right people to the right area, where industries they know are,” he says.

About a third of workers at Holla-Fresh are migrants or refugees. Photo by Kate Hill.

About a third of workers at Holla-Fresh are migrants or refugees. Photo by Kate Hill.

In the packing room, busy tucking fresh bunches of dill into plastic containers is Moo Aug Ler, a Burmese refugee who arrived at Holla-Fresh a year ago. Around a third of Holla-Fresh’s 55-strong workforce are migrants and refugees, with the majority from Burma.

Ian says every one of his migrant team is a “success story” and describes the transition one of his first workers underwent.

“When he first came out six years ago, he was shy, obviously traumatised from his past life and one of the Thai ladies here took him under her wing.

Moo Aug Ler and colleagues package fresh bunches of herbs. Photo by Kate Hill.

Moo Aug Ler and colleagues package fresh bunches of herbs. Photo by Kate Hill.

“Within a couple of weeks, he was starting to bounce and smile. Now, he’s the first here on the dot and he’s a fantastic bloke.”

Satisfaction for Ian is seeing his migrant employees settle with their families locally, buy houses and enjoy the Australian lifestyle.

“It’s something I’m pretty proud of,” he says humbly.

Taking up every nook and cranny of a large shed on the property is a complex $1.4 million system, dubbed the ECHO2. Installed in mid-2018, the fully-automated unit converts locally produced wood waste into hot water and electricity to run the 3.8 hectares of greenhouses on the property.

It’s estimated the system will save the business around $300,000 – $400,000 in energy costs a year.

The business, with 3.8 hectares of greenhouses, stretches across 19 hectares at Tantanoola in the South East. Photo by Ockert Le Roux.

The business, with 3.8 hectares of greenhouses, stretches across 19 hectares at Tantanoola in the South East. Photo by Ockert Le Roux.

The system has further environmental benefit, with Ian now proudly able to say Holla-Fresh is on the road to becoming ‘carbon negative’.

“With this system we are now putting more carbon back into the ground than we are putting into the atmosphere,” he explains.

For a business which began with one small greenhouse and a patch of tomatoes back in 1991, the future looks bright. The ‘MasterChef effect’ has also lent the fresh herb industry a further boost, Ian says.

“A lot of people watch the cooking shows and they might have oregano or thyme on the menu and they go out and buy it because they want to try that recipe.”

Although you won’t catch Ian watching, the benefits of owning the region’s largest herb farm means the Lines household is never short of motivation for dinner.

“Basil would be my favourite,” Ian says, with a smile. “Absolutely beautiful in salad mixes.”

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