Zerella Fresh

Feel the Freshness

Mark Pye, Managing Director of Zerella Fresh, unearths the Australian company’s commitment to farm fresh produce from paddock to plate
 
Writer: Jack Salter  |  Project Manager: Liam Pye
 
 
“Food, growing vegetables, and handling livestock have been a part of my life since I was a little boy growing up in New Zealand. I learnt an incredible amount as a young child and have continued to learn and be open to different insights over time.”
 
Fondly reflecting on his fresh produce roots is the Managing Director of Zerella Fresh (Zerella), Mark Pye, whose parents were hardworking dairy and potato farmers.
 
It was Mark’s father, Allan, who first proposed moving from New Zealand and setting up a business in Australia in the 1990s, growing and processing potatoes for McCain Foods (McCain).
 
“Our family business was already supplying McCain in New Zealand, and they were looking for another supplier in Australia. My wife and I decided it was a great opportunity, and we were keen to move to Australia and give it a go,” Pye recalls.
 
Zerella, meanwhile, was originally founded in 1936 as Zerella Holdings and was gradually acquired by the Pye family, having established themselves in the Mallee region of South Australia.
 
The vertically integrated company has been under the complete ownership of the family-run Pye Group since 2009 and was rebranded as Zerella Fresh to reflect the true nature and objective of the business – providing fresh produce to the consumer.
 
Indeed, Zerella grows, packs, processes, wholesales and distributes potatoes, carrots and onions across all Australian states and is today one of the major suppliers of fresh produce in the country.
 
“Zerella is a family-run business with farms spread across South Australia, from the Northern Adelaide Plains, through the Mallee region and down to the South-East; in total, we have approximately 50,000 hectares of land,” says Pye.
Commitment to fresh
Zerella is committed to reliable, year-round supply of the freshest available produce without the need for ground storage.
 
To deliver on this commitment, the company works with a number of farmers in many growing regions throughout Australia to take advantage of the different seasons as well as local climatic and soil conditions.
 
“We grow, harvest and pack potatoes, carrots and onions all year round with cereal crops and livestock utilised in rotation. Potatoes and onions are processed and packed at our head office in the Mallee region, whilst carrots are washed and packed at our Virginia site. Across all sites, the company employs around 450 people.”
 
Zerella’s carrot packing and storage facility is also ideally located on-site in Virginia on the rural outskirts of Adelaide, where horticulture is a thriving industry and the company can supply the city’s wholesale market and major distribution centres. 
 
South Australia as a whole is in fact a major producer of premium horticulture recognised for its excellence in environmentally clean, safe and advanced agricultural production.
 
“Horticulture and agriculture are exciting spaces to work in for us. It is an industry that always throws challenges but also offers an incredible amount of opportunity,” Pye states.
 
“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how important the industry is; people always come back to food when they’re in need of comfort and narrowing down to just the essentials. Additionally, the space has come a long way when you consider the technology and machinery available to improve sustainability and efficiencies.”
 
Over 12 years of ownership by the Pye Group has seen Zerella thoroughly research and implement several transformational technologies that have positively impacted the business.
 
In 2021, the company invested in two Elisam GranTorino Potato Grader machines chosen for their low drops, gentle handling, and high throughput. Depending on potato size, the machines can each grade and sort more than 4,500kg of potatoes per lane, per hour.
 
Coupled with Zerella’s investment in Ellips optical grading technology, each and every potato is internally and externally checked. These detailed checks, integrated with Berg palletising and Van Brugen automatic bagging systems, help Zerella to achieve consistent and quality product output and meet set specifications.
 
“These machines and systems also significantly reduced labour requirements, as well as occupational health and safety risks,” adds Pye.
 
Likewise, there have been significant upgrades to Zerella’s carrot production capabilities courtesy of equipment from Newtec, whose installed machinery externally grades each individual carrot, including size and weight. Further assisting with better product outcomes, the machinery also helped to ease the grading process for value-added goods such as Woolworths’ Odd Bunch range.
 
This is complemented by the installation of a form-fill packaging system as Zerella endeavours to reduce plastic and improve produce shelf life.
 
“We approached Case Packing Systems (CPS), a European company whose slogan is to ‘make the impossible packable’, with the challenge of case packing carrots, which had never been achieved or even attempted,” Pye shares.
Passion for produce
Passionate about wholesome, delicious vegetables and with full oversight of the supply chain, Zerella freshly grows all produce in Australia without genetic modification.
 
All new varieties are derived from natural pollination and carefully selected to bring the best in quality, taste and nutritional benefits.
 
“We absolutely pride ourselves on the fresh produce we deliver to customers every day. We ensure our product is fresh through a well-established and efficient supply chain,” outlines Pye.
 
“There are a number of steps that help to achieve this; firstly, by growing and harvesting to order. As a business, we will only grow the amount needed to fill the orders we establish through annually gained contracts.
 
“Once the produce is harvested, it is taken directly to the packing shed where it is washed, graded, and packed with state-of-the-art technology and machinery. With ample process flow, the period of washing and packing is incredibly efficient,” he continues.
 
Through this process, Zerella’s quality team is constantly collecting samples and providing feedback in relation to meeting set specifications.
 
Once the produce is packed, it is placed into a holding cool room for distribution to markets and distribution centres around Australia. Produce is delivered across the country and overseas, using modern refrigerated transport methods to guarantee timely delivery and a continuous cold chain.
 
“Because all of our produce is washed, packed, and distributed on the same day, we ensure it is as fresh as possible so our customers receive the best experience.”

“Horticulture and agriculture is an exciting space to work in for us. It is an industry that always throws challenges but also offers an incredible amount of opportunity”

Mark Pye, Managing Director, Zerella Fresh

Game-changing potatoes
In February 2015, Zerella introduced a brand of low carbohydrate potatoes, called Spud Lite, to major Australian supermarkets.
 
Containing 25 percent less carbohydrates than the average potato, Spud Lite is a golden, creamy potato bursting with nutrition and taste that is incredibly easy to prepare and has grown to be a strong performer in the market.
 
The growing period for Spud Lite potatoes is 20 to 30 percent shorter than most other varieties, which means it needs less maintenance and feeding and consistently shows a longer shelf life than many other popular potatoes, resulting in less greening and wastage.
 
“Spud Lite has been a gamechanger for our business and the overall Australian fresh potato market. The unique selling point it offers is a shorter growing time of 100 days, which results in less water use and inputs and it is a very versatile variety in the kitchen,” Pye hails.
 
“To this day, Spud Lite has grown to three stock-keeping units across the major supermarkets and independents in Australia.”
 
Spud Lite is sold in both 1.5kg and 750g bags, and Zerella is now working on a 350g microwaveable bag to meet growing demands for convenience.
 
Along with this, Zerella has provided growing rights to a grower in Tasmania and another in Western Australia so that Spud Lite can be purchased nationally. The introduction of Spud Lite has increased production for Zerella’s farmers and boosted the company through increased employment, marketing personnel, quality assurance staff and agronomists.
 
“The Spud Lite brand won the national Innovation Partner Award at Hort Connections 2019 as a leading example of how agricultural producers can add value through variety selection, packaging and branding,” reveals Pye.

“We absolutely pride ourselves on the fresh produce we deliver to customers every day. We ensure our product is fresh through a well-established and efficient supply chain”

Mark Pye, Managing Director, Zerella Fresh

Packing shed project
One of Zerella’s most significant projects is a new $40 million state-of-the-art potato packing shed. 
 
The potato packing shed Zerella was using in Virginia was out of date, inefficient and did not provide the space necessary for expansion.
 
Located in the heart of the Mallee region, the new facility enables Zerella to streamline its processes and implement different technologies, including optical grading and automated packing.
 
Construction commenced in late 2019 with the added support of a $2 million South Australian Government grant and was delivered despite a number of hurdles thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
“The development of the new potato packing shed took considerable time and research with a number of discussions and tours completed and different businesses offering various efficiencies from washing and grading through to packing,” Pye says.
 
“Even with the challenges presented, the project was only slightly delayed thanks to our great team, who were committed to getting the project completed at the necessary running capacity.”
 
Pye acknowledges the sheer importance of all Zerella’s employee and management teams, without whom the company would not be where it is today.
 
“We have teams for each essential part of the business, which is then separated into farm management of potatoes, carrots, onions, cereal cropping and livestock. We then have shed operations split again into potatoes, carrots and onions; each of these parts of the business has maintenance teams attached that work across multiple shifts,” he explains.
 
“To ensure that all teams are harmonised, we use WhatsApp as a means of communication, so we are all aware across both farm and shed of the formulated daily plan. These groups also include all communication regarding changes for the day, product feedback and breakdowns.
 
“In addition to this daily communication, we conduct weekly recap and planning meetings to help set up the week ahead and make the necessary changes.”
Sustainable harvests
Zerella is always working on different, innovative ideas and projects to improve the sustainability and efficiency of its farm operations.
 
These trial projects have become an incredibly important part of the business, given the constantly increasing costs of external inputs such as fertiliser, herbicides, fuel, packaging and wages.
 
The company is committed to leading-edge growing and post-harvest treatment equipment and practices, including irrigation and composting, which deliver a sustainable harvest from paddock to plate. 
 
Zerella is fortunate to be at the epicentre of the Mallee Prescribed Wells Area (MWPA) of South Australia, which covers some 8,000 square kilometres and assures uninterrupted access to water. The Virginia growing region, meanwhile, uses treated water from the local Bolivar treatment facility, significantly reducing pressure on the local aquifer.
 
SA Water treats around 95,000 millilitres of wastewater each year at its four wastewater treatment plants. The Bolivar plant alone is responsible for just less than half of this amount and delivers high quality treated wastewater piped to growers on the Northern Adelaide Plains.
 
These plants reduce the wastewater entering the Gulf St Vincent, the eastern of two large ocean inlets on the southern coast of Australia, and recycle high quality treated wastewater for irrigation.
 
Sites are also mapped for contours, soil variation and intended plantings. Variable rate irrigators are used to ensure the optimal amount of water is delivered to each plant. This efficient, large scale watering technique is customised for the different soils, contours and crops, saving water, energy, fertiliser and other inputs to make it the ideal environmental solution.
 
“Touching on sustainability, we have been using variable rate irrigation to minimise water use,” Pye confirms.
 
“Additionally, around 4,000 solar panels have been installed across the farm and pack house. On-farm e-mapping, an electronic managing system called Information Leader, and drones with infrared and thermal cameras also are used.”
 
In the year ahead, Zerella will continue to work on the successful integration and operation of its new potato packing shed, as well as working on projects relating to sustainability and business efficiencies.