Daredevil of the almond world in Victoria

By Indira Laisram
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Hari Yellina

When Hari Yellina moved to Australia in 2001 on a business visa, he did not envisage getting into the farming industry. He was an IT programmer, quite ahead of his time working on touchscreens which are now ubiquitous.

“I used to write programs for touchscreen and work for touchscreen-based companies,” says Yellina.

Seizing the opportunity, he set up his own company Cyber Tech Pvt Ltd from Melbourne. But he shut shop in 2009 as he saw another opportunity in e-commerce. He founded Indiamart.com.au.

At the same time, he was struck by other business ideas such as setting up car repairs, restaurants and other investments.

“I tried everything because I thought computers got a little boring,” says Yellina. Also, he felt at the time that nothing much was happening in Australia as everything from Google to Facebook to Hotmail to credit cards were coming out of the US.

On hindsight though, Yellina wishes he had stayed on with e-commerce had it not been for the lack of resources to move forward. Because he was trying his hands at different things, he realised his funds were running out quicker than he imagined. “Also, when you are on own here and you are learning things, you don’t know what is right at the moment, but I have no regrets,” he says.

It was in one of those fluid moments that he decided to travel around the country to look at the prospects of farming as a business. “If you look at farming in Australia, it is like a big bowl moving in the circle of a radius starting from Darwin to Cairns, Townsville, Victoria and Tasmania and going back again.”

Almond grove

After a fair bit of travelling and research that took six months to a year, Yellina decided to take the plunge into agri business largely as a hedge against inflation. He turned his focus on Victoria which, despite being the smallest state, “imports 46 percent of food products and exports 47 percent of food products in Australia”.

He also narrowed down his focus to primarily target the almond industry, among others. Victoria produces 68 percent of Australia’s almonds and most of the almond orchards are located along the Murray river within Sunraysia in Mildura, regional Victoria.

So, in 2009 Yellina founded Orchard Tech, a contract management company to the Australian agriculture and horticulture industries. “We became a niche in the market of supplying work force in the almond industry in Victoria,” he claims.

In 2018, Orchard Tech became an approved seasonal worker program employer allowing it to provide skilled staff on an ongoing basis during periods when it has traditionally been very challenging to meet the demands of harvest.

Orchard Tech provides workforce for Olam, a leading food and agri-business. At roughly 15,000 hectares of almond orchards, across 11 farms in the Sunraysia, the multi-national company grows grow non-Pareil, Carmel and Price almonds.

“In current times, almonds are identified as the main source of profit in Australia’s horticultural world. In 2014-15, this nut was crowned as the most valuable horticultural export, whose estimated annual export sales were $422 million. This achievement marked a 14 per cent increase from the previous year’s sale. Moreover, the profit of almonds from January to June increased up to 54 per cent, but the lack of production during the rest of the months in the year suppressed sales heavily.”

Orchard Tech’s workforce are employed 24 by seven, 365 days of the year. “When you are not plucking the fruit and nuts, you have to look after the plants, water them, clean them, feed them and replant them. So we supply workers to do all of that,” explains Yellina. “We are so good at it, the managers and farmers can sleep as these workers can do all the work.”

A service business with one of the biggest subscribers Olam, Orchard Tech has achieved enough success to keep it going. Yellina attributes it to his IT background. He explains thus, “Any business in Australia involves compliances, regulations, paperwork etc. For instance, an employee who joins up needs to fill up his employment forms, have superannuation, trainings and keep all other records. Now, while a lot of people are good at farming and supplying workers, they don’t often have the transparency that multi-national corporations demand. We have been able to establish a system to get it all right. It took me a few years, but we have technology to back our business. So, we got ahead of other people.”

Almonds

However, Yellina admits that the business has taken a hit with COVID despite zero active cases in Mildura since April. With most of his workforce being backpackers from island nations such as Tonga and Fiji, like the rest of the horticulture industry, the supply of seasonal workers has been impacted.

Secondly, costs have increased dramatically, he rues. “Cleaning procedures have increased, cost of transportation has increased – the same van that earlier ferried 40 people from the accommodation to the farms now requires double trips as only 20 people are allowed in one trip.

“The fresh produce have increased in prices but people are being frugal with spending due to the uncertainty of the times. Exports are also affected. So, there is an overall impact.”

But Yellina has a strategy in place given that the farming industry goes through a cycle of catastrophe such as droughts, cyclone or floods. “Every year we put away 10 per cent of our earnings as a buffer which helps us sustain the business.”

At the moment, the almonds are getting sold but not as last year or the year before. “Everybody is not getting as much money but we have to keep working because once you plant a tree, it is there for the next 40-50 years. Its maintenance is required with the same level of consistency irrespective of the economy.”

For the future though, with its exponential expansion, it is estimated that the almond orchard area will reach 130,000 tonnes in 2025, says Yellina. “Moreover, almonds have become a safe crop to invest in due to the high mechanisation of the industry. The suitability of almonds to the large-scale orchards makes it a crop that is highly stable and profitable. Interestingly enough, consumer demands for almonds are soaring each and every year. It has also been predicted that almonds will create approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s gross value of production.”

Clearly, Yellina has embraced almonds. He is at root a businessman. But this, he says, is not his final calling.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas


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