Troy and Vicki Muller are mad-keen tomato growers and gifted storytellers — and they are as vibrant as their splendid toms. On the picturesque pastures of Peak Crossing is Peak Veggie Patch, their family-run farm, which specialises in growing heirloom tomatoes with outstanding flavor, just like the ones grandad used to grow. Troy and Vicki search far and wide to find the tastiest varieties, and they’re passionate about delivering quality produce to local independent greengrocers. (Facebook: Peak Veggie Patch)
TROY & VICKI MULLER
Tell us about how you started growing tomatoes.
TROY: My grandfather had a dairy just as you go into Harrisville. We can see the farm where I was born from here. My mother came from Milbong; my father came from here. They had a fruit shop in Ipswich for about fifteen years, and it was a small fruit shop, but it was the best of the best. He was a fruiterer, not a fruit shop owner.
I worked in the fruit shop with him until they sold it. I went to Gatton and did horticulture, and then I worked for a seed company for twenty years. The lack of flavour in a lot of tomatoes I am partly responsible for because we used to travel the world finding tomatoes to bring back to Australia that were high-yield, firmer tomatoes that could travel from North Queensland to Melbourne without bruising. Everything was based on yield. Nothing was ever about flavour. It was all about looks. It had to look like a pea in a pod and it had to travel.
Anyway, I worked for the seed company for twenty years, travelled the world looking at stuff. The introduction of brocollini — I was involved in that. Halloween pumpkins — I was one of the people who initiated that in Australia. So, I have a bit of a background in finding stuff.
How long have you been in Peak Crossing?
TROY: Five years. I travelled a lot. I’d spend at least one night away a week and two or three weeks away a year, travelling for work, either overseas or interstate or in the state. Vicki looked after the kids. Vicki is a medical typist.
We first bought fifteen acres in the middle of Peak Crossing and put a bore down and just started growing a few tomatoes on the side, and, because I was involved in the industry, we’d get, like, seventy varieties from all over the world — grape tomatoes or cherries or normal tomatoes. So, I could pick the eyes out of it and get the best-tasting ones. We’d only grow about 300 or 400 plants at the most, but it was enough for us to pick during the week after work, package up and go to the markets on the weekend.
We started having a little bit left over and, with my connection to the seed company and my father’s fruit shop, I still knew people in the [produce ]markets. We’d drop a few off and we were smashing it. Because it was not many, and it was a supply-and-demand type of thing, the high-end fruit shops were grabbing it and running with it, saying, ‘Can you grow more?’ It pushed us into growing.
So, we were just growing a conventional grape tomato with a really nice flavour — sweet, but with a strong back flavour. It lingers in your mouth. It was great at the markets. You’d say to people, ‘Here, try a tomato.’ They’d try it and you’d see their face. Or you’d get people who weren’t ready to buy and they’d taste one and walk off, but it was a tomato that would linger in your mouth and the taste would hit you, and they’d wheel around and say, ‘I’ll grab some of those.’ That gave us the buzz. You’re giving people pleasure through what you grew yourselves.
So, we started doing a few more rows. Vicki was busier doing tomatoes than she was doing medical typing, and then it rained a couple of times and she was out there in the rain. I was away. I was sitting in motels. I was overseas or doing whatever, still working for the seed company.
VICKI: I was working three days a week in another job, as well as doing this.
TROY: So, we sold the small property and bought this property about six years ago. And it was a blank paddock. There was nothing here. Anything you see here, we’ve done. The whole thing. We thought we’d grow tomatoes as a hobby. But we had a following at the markets. The fruit shops wanted more.
Anyway, I came home and Vicki was in the rain and mud, so I said, ‘I’ll build you a greenhouse.’ Now, there are a lot of people around Brisbane that grow continental cucumbers. I have a good mate, a Vietnamese guy, who was my seed seller, who had some hoops left over from a farm. So, we bought the hoops and built the first one ourselves, and we went hydroponic from there. We were out of the soil with no ploughing and no mud, as we put plastic on the floor so Vicki wouldn’t get wet or dirty.
VICKI: I like the way he tells that story. He leaves a bit out, which is nice.
VICKI: Well, I was down there with Laura, our daughter — we were picking. It was raining and we were down, close to the fence. It had been raining for days and we had to pick these tomatoes. We’d picked them and we were packing them in the back of the car — the little car that we had at the time — so we could bring them back up here to pack them in the shed. I went to get into the car and Laura noticed the old pants I had on had ripped all the way around. I had been picking towards the road, in the rain, bent over and everybody going past would have been seeing my daggy undies. Then we got in the car and it had a flat battery and we couldn’t bring the tomatoes up. Troy rang, and Laura and I were laughing so hard I was crying. He was saying, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And I was saying, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’
TROY: Solution: build a greenhouse. You don’t get wet in a greenhouse.
VICKI: And if you split your pants, no one else sees.
TROY: So, you build one small greenhouse to keep them happy so I can still do my job — travel around as a sales rep — but it went from there and demand was crazy. We stopped doing weekend markets ,cause we were too busy with my job, Vicki’s job, plus that, and we had to be there at two in the morning. I mean, we loved it, and the best part about it was the people.
We still had a house in town when we started here and we were going to build a shed here and live in the shed for a couple of years. A few customers said, ‘Our friends did that and lived in it for twenty years!’ We said, ‘Nooo. That won’t be us,’ and six years later and the house hasn’t been built. We’re still in the shed.
How many greenhouses do you have now?
TROY: There are now three greenhouses. The last one we built, doubled production from last year. Each one is a little bigger. We went from three hoops to six hoops and now that one is eight hoops.
I ditched the job five years ago. We stuck our necks out. It was scary. When you are getting paid a salary, you have your own company car, an expense account and travelling, and you give it all up to go it alone … but it was time to go.
What varieties do you grow now?
TROY: We did mainly grape tomatoes for the first three years. We trialled all sorts of things, different varieties and things, and nothing came up until we planted a row of the tomato that we grow now. The first trial wasn’t that good, and Vicki said, ‘What did you grow that for?’ But I learnt how to grow it, and we had a demand for it. Then we realised it was easier to do than the grape tomatoes because grapes take so long to pick. We call them an heirloom tomato. They’re the everyday tomatoes in Spain and Turkey, and they’ve been using them for a long time. We got onto the heirloom and the market has picked up there. Two years ago we stopped doing grapes completely.
Now, your tomatoes are sold to independent grocers?
TROY: They have confidence in us because they know everything we put in the box is going to be fine. Because we hand-pack everything, everything goes through Vicki’s and my fingers. Even when we had people packing, we were the last ones to close the lid on a punnet.
We’re passionate about the flavour and quality of our produce. We don’t like seeing anything go out of here that we wouldn’t eat ourselves. It has to be good and it has to taste good. We have thrown many a tomato to a cow, just because we didn’t want to put it in a box and put our name on it.
VICKI: We want the customer to be confident in what they’re getting from Peak Veggie Patch. If I am getting Peak Veggie Patch tomatoes, I know they’re going to be good. I don’t have to taste it, I don’t have to feel it, I can just pick it up because I know it is going to be good.
TROY: We started with nothing and we haven’t had anyone help us. We’ve done everything ourselves. It started from a blank canvas. That is the rewarding part. We’ve put in our blood, sweat and tears.