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profile FAST pickingsMeet Vange Panagiotidis – astalwart of the Carabooda growing scene who specialises in fast-rotation baby leaf. Words Anna Flanders Photography Frances Andrijich Vange is proud that he can harvest and deliver produce to retailers on the same day. “ My dad used to hand seed three beds every week by hand ... I did it once, and it was pretty tough”VANGE Panagiotidis is a plumber and builder by trade. However, being the son of a grower, he has been working in horticulture his entire life. Both involve their fair share of dirt, but the latter is obviously more scientific. It’s this part of the job that he enjoys, sharing that he has been working hard to balance the right mix of nutrients to create the perfect soil for his crops. It’s a work in progress. Vange today heads up P&A Pan. The son of Greek migrants, his company name is an anglecised version of his father’s name – Panagiotis Panagiotidis. “When Dad first came, they told him they couldn’t call him by his name – it was too hard. So they called him Peter Pan. Hence the Pan on the end of our name. He started off as Peter Pan and now we are trading as P&A Pan,” explains Vange. His father had moved to Western Australia from Greece in 1955. His two brothers and mother moved out with him. Vange’s mother came out seven years later. The plan was to make some money and return to Greece. But Vange’s parents stayed, while his father’s brothers and mother returned. They lived on 10 acres in a small tin-roof hut with hessian bag walls, which were wetted down in summer for cooling. With not much money, they couldn’t afford irrigation, so worked for other farmers during the warmer months and grew during winter with the rains. He started with peas. Vange remembers working on the farm in the early days, nailing wooden crates together; converting rice harvesters to switch from hand picking to mechanised harvesting; and moving from hand spraying to tractors. However, he left the farm after gaining a plumbing apprenticeship. “I stepped back into the business seven years later in 1987. It was really out of a sense of obligation as my parents were getting a bit older,” says Vange. “It was a bit tough because Dad didn’t like change and things were changing and the industry was getting more competitive.” With mechanisation of the farming process came growth. P&A Pan expanded through acquiring an additional properties and leasing three to four more farms. The tomatoes that had been grown on the property for around 40 years (as well as eggplant, iceberg lettuce, cabbage and cauliflower) were replaced by six to eight varieties of lettuce heads, then they moved into baby leaf. “My dad used to hand seed three beds every week by hand – three spinach and three lettuce. I did it once, and it was pretty tough trying to push it by hand,” laughs Vange. These days seeding machinery has made the process more efficient, which has taken two to three people out of the field. Vange introduced processing his product (where the people from the field now work) and the PanaFresh packed lettuce brand was born. While this brand was launched three years ago, it had a short lifespan prior to that when Vange launched a living herb concept in sustainable coconut fibre pots. While a great idea, it was a little ahead of its time and retail pricing put off consumers. “We grew herbs in a coconut fibre pot, which could be planted whole and would breakdown over time. It was sustainable, used less water and it meant people could cut fresh herbs for their kitchen. Maybe we will release it again,” says Vange. Today Vange owns his farm and leases a shed from his sister on an adjoining property. In terms of irrigation and soil, he uses sprinkler irrigation and a blend of fertiliser custom made for his land. “Healthy soil is obviously a better soil with less disease. Our crops are in the ground for a few weeks, then we rotate. We do a combination of things to keep it healthy.” His staff vary from six to 10, depending on the season. He has staff who oversee the farms and make sure the day-to-day keeps rolling seamlessly week to week. “My daughter is now in the office and doing our bookkeeping, she’s interested in the farm,” says Vange. “She is working on compliance with Fair Farms, I bring in contractors for HR and QA, and I wear several hats myself.” Having worked through the Building Horticulture Business Capacity (BHBC) and benchmarking program with vegetablesWA and Planfarm, he has streamlined his ranges and has no plans to grow. “It’s a bit tough at the moment, especially if you don’t supply the supermarket chains,” says Vange. “But thanks to streamlining, we’ve cut back on hours, working only five days a week, and we harvest and deliver to our customers on the same day. If we increased in volume, we wouldn’t be able to do that. I think in the next five to 10 years there will be a lot of changes, so we are concentrating on being efficient and heading towards smaller lines.”