Matt and Sarah Muller are renowned in the Fassifern Valley for their brightly coloured, sweet and juicy heirloom tomatoes. While they were already growing and selling red tomatoes, Sarah was interested in growing heirloom tomatoes for their beauty and taste. To successfully grow heirlooms for a commercial market, they needed to find varieties that ticked all of the boxes. They needed to grow robustly, look attractive and taste delicious. They sourced seed from gardening clubs and small seed companies, and set about collecting the best seeds from the strongest plants to establish their quality product. They also grow red gourmet tomatoes, potatoes and garlic. As well as selling their produce through the Brisbane central markets, every week Fassifern Valley Produce sells a tonne of red tomatoes through their large roadside stall out the front of the farm on Boonah-Fassifern Road.
How long have you been in the area?
About fifteen years. I grew up further north, outside a town called Murgon, in the South Burnett area. My parents farmed up there.
Why the Scenic Rim?
I was seventeen at the time, I think, and I had some family down this way. I really liked the area. It was beautiful, with the mountains and everything. Mum and Dad were in an off-season so I came down for a holiday. I was a bit bored so I took a job for a few weeks, and ended up staying and working for a carrot farmer. One thing led to the next. I did that for a couple of years and ended up staying.
So, do you primarily grow tomatoes?
Mostly tomatoes, yes. People seem to like the heirlooms. The zebras are very popular. Everyone loves the zebras. Any of the tomatoes we do are good, but the zebras and the Mary Italian, they have a complicated flavour. They are not just all acid or all sweet. They’re really complicated.
Where do you source your seed?
We mainly source our original seed lines from gardening clubs. They are really the only people who actually have a decent catalogue of these seed lines. We’ve been through literally over a hundred different varieties. Obviously, you can have a good tomato for a garden, but ninety-nine per cent of the time it doesn’t perform under semi-commercial applications, if you are actually going to feed people with it. Because, obviously, they have to have a certain shelf life. So, we go through these varieties and see which varieties have, first of all, a fantastic flavour and appearance, and then we go through … It is not a good term, ‘breeding’, but after that we start selecting the plants that perform under our growing conditions — mainly looking for splitting and a little bit of disease resistance. It is kind of like breeding a good line of cattle: just because it is a Hereford, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good Hereford. And that’s why people go after the very best Herefords from, you know, Joe down the road. It is the same as that. So, it takes us a couple of years to get a decent strain of yellow pear or green zebra. They’re the two main ones we’ve had to put a lot of effort into. Every time we take seed, we take it from the best, the strongest plants that are giving us the quality we expect.
How do you do it? Do you dry it out?
It is more complicated than you think. You have to first take ripe fruit. We flag tape a plant that we’ve selected, and then let the fruit ripen to past when it would be good to eat. Then, take that fruit and nick the end off. When they’re that ripe you can actually squirt most of the seeds out of them, and you ferment the seed, which actually breaks down a lot of the pulp. It also — Sarah went to college to learn about all of this — it helps the seed and it ferments, and you continue doing that for about three days. Then you strain it and wash all the pulp off. It comes off really easily. Then you need to store it for a certain amount of time so that the biological age is right, for the best results.
It isn’t easy to find flavoursome tomatoes these days.
Yes. I think a lot of it comes down to balanced nutrition. Everybody knows if you pump a tomato full of potassium you are going to grow it big, and that’s really all that anybody commercially cares about — getting tonnes of their tomatoes … the yield. Everybody is just trying to feed their family. But, unless you have repeat customers who are actually buying your brand and you’re not just contributing to a pool of red tomatoes … That’s all you are going to get if people are just contributing to one pool. All they’re going to care about is yield. That’s where the quality has really dropped in the last twenty or thirty years, because of the way that they are sold.
Years ago, people were loyal to a particular brand, a particular farmer. You know, it might be J. Bell Brooke and Sons or something like that. The actual farmer himself might have a sticker on his box and the bloke in the fruit shop might buy them because Gladys likes those tomatoes. And that’s the way it was. Obviously the system, the way it is now, is a far superior way of producing cheap food, and that’s what people want ninety per cent of the time. But you can’t have cheap and flavour. It just doesn’t work. You get tomatoes that taste like a cold room. There’s just no flavour in them.
Again, with our soil … That’s something we’ve just stumbled onto. We bought this farm not really understanding the road we were going to go on, and we’ve stumbled onto the fact that this particular soil gives excellent results for both flavour and keepability. The two go hand in hand. Having the correct nutrition for a tomato will produce that keepability.
I think the soil is one of the trademarks of the Fassifern area. Obviously, we have creek flats and they’re fantastic as well, but a lot of the scrub soil is almost like bowling with bumper rails on. If you do it wrong it will punish you and turn into bricks because of the clay content. You’ve got to do it right or otherwise you are just not going to get the results, whereas with some of the sandier soils you can get away with doing it wrong. I think the scrub soil, because of the clay content — obviously that is potential nutrition itself — but if you farm it wrong it will turn into bricks. It is discipline, really, to do it right. That’s why these soils produce such flavoursome and nutritious food.
Why did you choose to grow heirloom varieties?
My wife’s grandmother and grandfather came over from Slovenia, just north of Italy, and that’s where most of this comes from. When we first started growing tomatoes, we were just growing the red ones, the normal gourmets, for the stall. Sarah was doing little trials with the heirlooms. She’s the one with the passion for the heirlooms.
Do you have any mentors?
There’s actually a guy over at Gatton who has been the most helpful with growing techniques for tomatoes — Mike Clarke from over at Flagstone Produce. Most vegetable farmers are very secretive with their techniques because of the marketing system. It seems cold and capitalistic, but it is just the way it is. It only takes one idiot to plant a hundred acres too many tomatoes and everybody is going to make a loss that year with oversupply. He wasn’t like that; he really helped me with the nutrition and growing techniques. Obviously, you have to lead your own brand, because we are in a different sub-climate with different soil, but he got us on the way. I grew up farming as well. I did that until I was seventeen at home. I left school when I was fifteen and did that for two years at home.
The other thing, in the Fassifern, there’s a really good culture between the majority of the farmers. In other vegie-growing areas there’s real mistrust between farmers — we keep our secrets to ourselves. But it is not like that here.
How do you cope with the challenges of farming?
It is funny, obviously money makes the world go around, but … I heard a really good saying: money won’t make you happy, but if you don’t have enough money, it can make you very unhappy. It puts a good balance on it. You have to pay the bills. You have to do that. But sometimes, these things — adversity and having to pick yourself up again — it really develops your soul. It is not just all about money. You’re becoming a better person.
What does a typical day look like?
That’s one good thing about farming — there is always something different going on … for me, anyway. For the pickers, it gets a little mundane, but no two days are really exactly the same. We normally start about half past six, and I normally finish by six o’clock. I try to be inside a bit after six. There’s no real typical day. I love outside. I really missed that when I was welding. It gets into you, growing up with it.
Who buys your produce?
The heirlooms — we sell those commercially. We take them into the central markets, into Rocklea, there. They are sold on a fixed-pricing system, so it is the same price no matter what, whether it is here or Melbourne or … We subsidise the freight going down there, but it is the same price no matter what. I’d rather not pick my tomatoes if there’s glut than oversupply and sell them for a loss. That is insane. It does everybody a disservice. So, we sell the heirlooms through there and they get distributed. They are very good at what they do. Everything gets to where it is meant to be quickly and efficiently. But with everything else we do … It is remarkable, that little stall out there. We sell literally a tonne of red tomatoes a week, and possibly two tonne of spuds when we’re into them.
The stall works on an honesty system. Does it work?
Predominantly, yes. It’s wonderful. We’ve had a couple of little hiccups. It is always only one ratbag. They took a liking to my money, more than the stuff. We ended up catching them red-handed!
You were saying you like to grow as naturally as possible …
We’re not organic, but there’s a massive change sweeping across the whole industry. Full-on commercial people and everybody are really getting on board with this. It is targeting a specific species of insect or fungus and that sort of thing, and leaving the beneficials. It is all about tipping the balance, these days. The chemical companies are actually leading the charge with this. They are doing a fantastic job, a lot of them. They are developing chemicals that will target one species of insect and leave the beneficials alone. Obviously it is in their best interest because they can charge us exorbitant rates to use it, but it is a good thing. So, we can go and take out all the heliothis and grubs in our paddocks, but leave all of the parasitic wasps, the lacewings, the ladybeetles and bees, leave them all untouched. Thirty years ago you would have just nuked everything and it would have been sterile. It has really come a long way in the last ten years, and it is getting faster and faster.