Corrigan’s Produce Farms is one of the longest lasting fifth-generation farms of its kind. In 1954, after buying land in Keysborough, Victoria, the Corrigan family began to grow and transport produce to be sold in the markets of Melbourne. Today, directors Darren and Deborah Corrigan stand by the consistent effort to maintain quality produce stemming from decades of successful breeding for each food variety.
“Over the years we’ve grown a lot of different products,” says Deborah. “We grow celery, which is all our own varieties – which has been bred for over 50 years. We grow salad onions; again they are Corrigan-owned varieties that have been bred over 40 years, and we’ve bred them for sweetness and mildness. We also grow, celeriac, baby cos, leeks, three different varieties of kale, silverbeet, rainbow chard, and Asian vegetables.”
The introduction of quality assurance from grocery outlets like Woolworths and Coles allowed Corrigan’s to show its dedication to fresh produce. The farm was one of the first to be accredited after Woolworths established their quality assurance guarantee in 1996, and soon after, it was insured by Coles for the same product maintenance standard. Corrigan’s has also obtained their Safe Quality Food (SQF) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certifications.
Crediting her father as her mentor, Deborah highlights the importance of these qualifications, as they help build connections within the industry.
“Relationships are vital, whether it’s with a customer, supplier, your staff, or industry associations. So, we have a very strong emphasis on relationships. For our customers, that sometimes can be tricky because, in this industry, it can be fickle from time to time and, essentially, we’re a demand-and-supply business.
With our suppliers – same thing with the customers – it’s all very important. We operate every day of the year, and we need to have service; we need to have knowledge. We need to have seed availability – seedling availability when we want it. We need information, and all of this has got to be done in a timely manner.
So, having those types of relationships is really important because sometimes the supplier can remind you that you need to do something, or ‘we’re running out of stock’, or ‘you need to put in your next plan’, or ‘have you thought about this variety’, or ‘we might trial this variety’. So, those relationships are very important, and we’ve also been very aware of industry relations.”
Since its inception, Corrigan’s has always been involved with the Victorian Farmers’ Federation and the Victorian Vegetable Growers Association, now operating as AUSVEG VIC. Darren and Deborah’s grandfather served as a past president, and now she is also on the executive board.
“As farmers, we see ourselves very much as quiet achievers,” says Deborah. Along with its many organisation memberships, Corrigan’s Produce Farms has also won a Casey Cardinia Business Award for Agriculture. Deborah won the AUSVEG Women in Horticulture Award in 2011, and in 2014, Darren was a finalist for the Australian Farmer of the Year Awards.
“I grew up on the farm, which I enjoyed, and I never considered working in the family business, probably until I was in my 30’s, because it was no place for a girl. It wasn’t even a consideration. My brothers were groomed to be farmers from a very young age, but I was encouraged to pursue other opportunities, which I did.”
Before her decision to invest her time into the farm, Deborah worked in an office, and later became a beauty therapist. It wasn’t until she was presented with the opportunity to do some administration work for her father that she recognized it as a career option.
“It’s something I was waiting for my whole life, but didn’t realize it. I started off working in Dad’s office one day a week, when we had a lady coming to do the wages and pay the bills.”
From there, she started working on the farm with her brothers; however, there was an apparent disconnect between her and the staff. “It was a man’s environment and I wasn’t encouraged to talked to the men – not by my father, who, I believe, was a very free-thinker and a very smart man; but my brothers, especially. They were saying, ‘Oh, you’re a woman, you can’t talk to them. If you want them to do something, you ask us and we’ll tell them.”
Deborah was still able to gain the knowledge that she needed in order to maintain the farm, despite any initial difficulties in communication with her fellow employees. “I taught myself. Thank God for Google and the Internet, and Dad. Gradually, over all these years, I’ve learned how to farm; I know about the ground, I know about plants, I know about all that type of things.”
The challenge as a woman in the horticultural industry didn’t go unnoticed for Deborah. She recalls being the only woman present at meetings, and being the ‘butt of the joke’ for a period of time. However, she knew what she had to do in order to feel comfortable with her surroundings: she needed to gain the respect of her peers.
“I had to earn it – and I did earn it, and I still have it and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. I really enjoy it. Farming’s not for the faint-hearted; something different comes up every day, and it’s really challenging. But it’s very rewarding as well.”
The reward has paid off, as about a third of Corrigan’s Produce Farms’ employees are female, and, as a collective, the farm has employed people from different parts of the Eastern hemisphere. “We’re very diverse here, and celebrate it,” says Deborah.
Not only does Corrigan’s Produce Farms celebrate culture, but it also celebrates individual achievement; an Employee of the Month is recognized on the farm’s Facebook page, and the winner receives a $100 voucher for their success.
“We try to acknowledge our employees that way, and we find they respond really well.”
While the farming community has been facing some downfalls, including a change in governmental laws and limited access to land and water due to urban expansion, Corrigan’s Produce Farms remains diligent in its right to operate as usual.
“We’ve been surrounded by housing developers at the moment and we still want to farm,” says Deborah. “The government is forcing us to stop farming because they want us to pay. They’ve changed their rules in government, and now we’re subject in land tax, which is going to be about $7,000 – an exorbitant amount of money – so we’re going to have to lawyers. We’re probably going to have to do some sort of media strip. We’re going to have to fight this, because we are true farmers.”
Furthermore, these changes have resulted in the enforcement of “ethical auditing” to ensure that labour practices are fair and quality assurance standards are being maintained.
“They’re bringing in this new system where, once in every three years, you’ll have an unannounced audit, and they’ll just roll up – and it could be our busiest day of the year, or something’s gone wrong, or I’m sick, but they’ll roll up expect us to be ready at all times to do an audit. That’s a lot of pressure on us at the moment.”
Well before the fear of any threat, Corrigan’s has been putting everything they have into farm to ensure it is running in exceptional order. Deborah works six days in any week, and there is always someone there to take care of the farm.
“I have some really grave concerns about the future of farming in Australia,” she says. “We do the best for our customers, and it’s all done with love and passion, and all those years of knowledge. But I have a feeling that the government is making it very difficult; they don’t acknowledge what an important role we are. I mean, we’re feeding the nation.
We’re going to be under a lot of pressure from [farmers from overseas] buying land. Obviously some things are domestic, but a lot will be taken off. But that relationship – that the farmers have to the land; have to their customers; to the everyday person that goes to the supermarket to buy their produce – will be lost, and that’s quite sad. It’s become very commercial.”
This lack of support from local consumers is something Deborah would like to see rectified in order to secure the future of farming in Australia.
“It would be nice if the farmers could get support from people. I think the government’s very dismissive of farmers and the importance that we actually play… Farmers really are the unsung heroes.”