The supermarkets are eating their Corrigan greens

The Corrigan siblings are building a formidable vegetable brand, much to the chagrin of Coles and Woolworths.

Part of the reason supermarkets love fresh food so much is that it’s all 'home brand'.

They don’t have do battle with global brand owners like Coca Cola and Proctor and Gamble, or worry about capricious small brand-owners. An apple is an apple and a bunch of celery is just celery, and as far as the customers are concerned, they are Coles and Woolworths apples and celery.

Of course the supermarkets don’t grow the fruit and veggies, but the people who do it are nameless farmers, toiling away quietly on their tractors producing the Coles and Woolies brand fruit and veg.

At least that’s what is supposed to happen -- and did until the Corrigans came along.

Deborah and Darren Corrigan are having the first serious go at building a separate Australian vegetable brand.

Deb’s picture appears on many of their veggie wrappers and she’s using Facebook and Instagram very effectively to build her brand. Last year Darren appeared on My Kitchen Rules, shooting him to some kind of national prominence.

Earlier this year, the brother-and-sister team were on the ABC’s Landline talking about their kale crop, and that’s apparently when things really started to take off for them.

The supermarkets aren’t too happy about all this. They prefer their market gardeners to keep their heads down, and they see what the Corrigans are doing as a possible threat to their own branding strategies.

After all, they are working hard in dry groceries to replace as much as possible of the branded products with their own home brands, and they don’t want that plan to be going in reverse in fresh food, which they regard as the most important part of the store.

One of them even demanded recently that Deborah get her name and face off the silverbeet and replace it with the supermarket’s name.

So who are they, these noisy, unvegetable-like vegetable pioneers?

The Corrigan siblings are fifth-generation market gardeners in Melbourne. Their great great grandfather Tom Corrigan left Ireland for Australia in 1853 to look for gold and he found enough to buy some land at Keysborough, near Melbourne, and planted vegetables.

It was his grandson Clarence who really built the business after separating from his cattle-farming brother in 1935 and then getting a contract to supply the Australian Army with carrots and other fresh vegetables during the Second World War.

His son Geoff took over the business in the early 1960s and Clarence died in 1976, at which point Geoff was running two farms 40 minutes apart -- the original farm in Keysborough and a second one in Clyde, not far from Cranbourne.

It was a tough business, but Geoff made enough to send his three kids -- Deborah, Darren and Stephen -- to private schools. Eventually they sold the Keysborough property and focused on Clyde.

Geoff is known as a great vegetable innovator. He developed year-round celery and an improved strain of salad onions.

Deborah and Darren have maintained that tradition of innovation by pioneering kale in Australia after Deborah discovered it on a trip to the United States.

They started with 100 kale plants and now harvest 150,000 of them a week, all with the Corrigan logo on the sleeve.

More recently they have moved heavily into leeks, investing $500,000 in a special leek harvester, which is a remarkable piece of machinery.

Some time ago the family decided to do some succession planning: Geoff was getting on and they needed to figure out what would happen when he retired.

It apparently took five years to negotiate. Not that it was acrimonious, just complicated.

The end result is that Deborah and Darren own the business equally between them and rent the land from their parents. Stephen will be looked after from the estate in other ways.

The key to the family wealth now is the fact that their land has been rezoned for housing and is suddenly worth a lot more subdivided than it is as a market garden -- a pretty common story on the outskirts of Australia’s big cities. So now what?

Says Deborah: “We don’t want to just sell to a developer. It would be flippant to take the money and run, disrespectful to all those who have come before us.”

And apart from that, they love growing vegetables, and growing a family business. Turnover is now more than $15 million and there are 80-100 on staff employed, depending on the season.

“We’re always thinking about the next thing. We want to be innovators and we want this to be a fun place to work.”

And most of all, they are having fun building the Corrigan vegetable brand, and twisting the gorillas’ tails in the process.