Bush Lanterns – Maureen Dobra

Success isn’t accident. A dream doesn’t become reality through just clicking your fingers. It takes sweat, determination and hard work. There aren’t secrets to success, just as there aren’t any get-quick-rich schemes. Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure and persistence.

Maureen Dobra is all of the above. I hope you enjoy her incredible story.

  1. Tell us a little about yourself, family and work?

My name is Maureen Dobra and I am a vegetable farmer.  Once upon a time we were called market gardeners but over time and as we became larger and more specialised, we are known as vegetable farmers. Here’s my story:

  • I was born in 1951 into a market gardening family that grew lettuce (what a coincidence now!). I was married at the age of 17 and my husband’s family were market gardeners too. Over the years we have had a go at growing many types of vegetables. You name and it and we have probably grown it. During the 1970’s we predominately grew carrots and onions in the Spearwood/Munster area. Vegetable growers have a lot of similarities to other farmers. We’re always concerned with the weather. We’re optimistic our crops will be abundant and that the next year will be even better.
  • The Spearwood area where we lived with our 4 children, comprised of 2 hectare to 4 hectare plots of land. We owned 2 hectares and rented another 6 hectares.  My last child was born in 1976 and it was my daily job to turn the irrigation pumps and motors on, and to make sure all sprinklers were working.  My baby went with me everywhere – in a sling – and in those days I was slim, trim and terrific!
  • During the winter of 1979 we seeded our onion crop.  Storms came through and sandblasted the crops and they were destroyed. Optimistically we planted the onions again but more storms came through and ruined the crops. That was the beginning of our journey to look for more land, which in turn brought us to Gingin.
  • In late 1980 we found a beautiful property of 24 hectares in Gingin. It had fresh water in a moated dam and was bounded on one side by a brook. The land was 95% cleared. It was just what we wanted. The payment went down and in 1981 my husband and his brother owned the land (well, so did the bank!). Now we just had to sell the property in Munster.
  • The Munster property was beautiful – of course that was our opinion. Reflecting on the size and the location of the property, in today’s market it would be worth millions. Ocean views, views of the Darling Scarp and views of Perth city. But none of it existed in 1981. It took us nearly 2 years to sell with a bridging loan to cover our payments. This was in the days of more than 20% interest – by the time we sold the property, there was very little left to start again.
  • My in-laws helped us to build a shed on our Gingin property. This was our starting home. We had no electricity, no toilets and no baths. We were pioneers in 1983, but the kids loved it! It was very exciting for them – space to run around, water to play in. What more could they want?
  • We were young and thought we knew everything but it was hard without much money to purchase irrigation, pumps and other infrastructure. However, a proposition came up to start a new farm, under a new type of irrigation system with the potential to make quite a substantial amount of money – even in the first year. So we made the decision to move to Mandurah and start afresh. In the beginning we were paid a wage but as times went on, the funds were not there to support the families of the business.  After 3 years we decided to move back to Gingin, but I remained in Mandurah for 6 months so that the children could finish their final years of education.
  • In 1987 (in partnership with our eldest son Kevan), we started growing gourmet vegetables. This was an extremely new type of industry for the Western Australian market, a smaller type of the conventional vegetable – baby ones.  They were in high demand from up-market restaurants to be used as decorations on consumer’s plates. The sales for these baby vegetables grew and grew, and we began growing the pretty coloured lettuces in all different shapes, sizes and patterns. We started with a quarter of a hectare in 1987 and had 15 hectares by 1996! However, it did have its downside. My husband and I were getting older and this was a very labour-intensive industry – taking its toll on our bodies.
  • I stepped into the truck driving roll. It made sense for my husband and son to stay home and do the much heavier work whilst I drove the truck and delivered to our customers. This created good communication and relationships with our customers. In turn, our customer base increased and the trucks needed to be bigger and bigger.
  • The Loose Leaf Lettuce Company came to be when my daughter had graduated from university and was awaiting a teaching placement.  We had a client that required some little lettuce leaves but we only had whole lettuces. She volunteered to cut them, and the orders grew and grew. In 1996, my two daughters decided to form The Loose Leaf Lettuce Company (Loose Leaf). They were 23 and 25 years old and were growing and harvesting their own crops. Their business grew over 2 years then they decided that they would like to see the world. They decided to go backpacking to the United Kingdom and off they went. We – my husband, eldest son and I, inherited Loose Leaf and the rest is history!
  • Today, we are known as fresh-cut salad growers and processors. Our markets are the Perth Markets and the food service industries of WA. The growth of our industry has been amazing! Currently we are supplying WA with more than 20,000 kilos of fresh-cut salads per week from 40 hectares.
  1. What is your greatest achievement

Raising my 4 children. They all have their own personalities and their own specialties.  My eldest son has followed in my footsteps and grows vegetables and has a natural ability with all types of machinery. My younger children attended university and followed different career paths initially.

However, now all four of my children are here – in my business – working alongside my husband and I. Two of my children’s spouses are here too, and my eldest grandson and his partner. My 14-year-old grandson works for our business on school holidays and weekends. Until just 5 years ago, my mother – who is now 84 years old and lives on our farm – was working here too! My mother in law who is 94 years old also lives on our farm. My grandchildren are in and around the farm on a daily if not weekly basis. Loose Leaf is a true example of a family business!

One of my daughters is a teacher and the other is an accountant. Now with 50 staff I have become a teacher to my employees and a finance manager. My youngest son is qualified in Information Technology, and we rely on technology every day to operate our business. The question is – did my children follow in my footsteps or did I follow in theirs?!

One of my greatest achievements is becoming the first female president of vegetablesWA. This is the state peak industry body for the vegetable growers of Western Australia.

I was also the Rural Women’s Award winner for Western Australia in 2005. It opened many doors – not only in the vegetable industry but also into a variety of business networks.

  1. How did you get where you are today, and who/what helped you?

I consider my employees my family too. From a staff of four, I now have 50 either permanent or casual staff – which includes overseas backpackers. The backpackers form my ’worId-wide family’. I can say with a great deal of pride that employment opportunities for our region have been created because of the success of our company. We created opportunities for women with families when we introduced flexible working hours. We employ people who are keen and enthusiastic, as well as students wanting to work during their school holiday break.  We want to see the town and region prosper through horticulture. Many of our originally unskilled staff have risen to managerial and supervisory positions. My aim is to have a safe, happy and healthy workforce and to be able to offer flexibility of working hours to suit every employee’s need.

  1. You are an effective female leader.  What drives you?

Love of the industry!  What else? That is first and foremost. Everyone has to eat, and vegetables are the main staple of every diet of the human race. I take pride in what we grow and where we grow it. Yes, there are times when produce is not perfect, but neither are we. Horticulture is always a work in progress – to be able to convey this to our town, our region, consumers and nationally is of immense pride to me. To be able to share my ups and downs, my achievements and rewards to one and all gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

Over the years I have interacted with many people. We often give tours of our farm and factory and it wasn’t until many years later that a previous visitor remarked that I had been an inspiration to them. Me?! That came as quite a surprise. My personal commitment and passion for the industry must show to those around me, and I love that I can inspire others simply by doing what I love.

  1. Name one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.

These days I don’t sleep very well. I’ll often sleep for 4 – 5 hours then wake.  Well what’s one to do at 1 or 2 am. Gone are the party days!  They were decades ago – then came the babies and the sleepless nights.  Now when I wake up and I make a cuppa and sit on the balcony and breathe in the sea air.  That’s enough to send me back to sleep for another 4-5 hours.  I’d recommend this therapy any time.

  1. What would be your advice to younger women who are trying to achieve great things in your rural area.

Love what you do. Have the passion and confidence to achieve what you want. Network with many industries – there are many things that can be taken from other industries and applied to what you’re doing. Learn some budgeting and book-keeping skills, and hone your ‘world-wide’ social skills through the internet and use them to promote your achievements. Make sure you have support from your loved ones and those closest to you and try to achieve a work/life balance. Everyone needs encouragement and praise and sometimes a hug.

Comments 7

  1. Cousin Maureen, we are proud of your achievements and your family too. To find something that is essential to everyone’s well-being and be your calling must be so satisfying. Vegans look for the best quality and voila, there you are, serving it up to all the people of Western Australia. Well done, a lovely article.

  2. What a great read, being in the same industry , I certainly get this lady not only because I know her but the story
    Is so true . Maureen you are a leader and an inspiration to others, always willing to help and always thinking ahead. So glad that you are a big part of VegetablesWA.
    Dan Kuzmicich
    President
    VegtablesWA

  3. I’ve seen you all go through the really hard times with nothing at all. You have all done a great job through many hours of sacrifice to be where you are now. I am so proud of you.

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