Rosy Reds of Flagstone Fresh
The Klucks talk growing tomatoes

From the outset, Mike and Colleen Kluck’s property paints a pretty picture. They reside in Flagstone Creek in the Lockyer Valley, surrounded by a beautiful garden and 120-odd hectares of agricultural land.

Their welcoming appearance is balanced by a shared sharp wit that evokes a full life with all its inevitable complications. It’s no surprise they’ve been in the game of growing for years on end.

Mike grew up in a local farming family, harvesting small crops, lucerne and grains alongside his brothers Joe and Reg. They have since gone their separate ways, but each continue to grow their chosen crops, including tomatoes, onions, lucerne and grain, across different properties in the Lockyer Valley and Goondiwindi regions.

Mike and Colleen have been growing tomatoes exclusively since 2007 when they established their own business, Flagstone Fresh. Last year they oversaw the planting of 28 hectares of gourmet tomatoes and 30 hectares of cherry tomatoes, which accounted for 153,000 10-kilo boxes and 180,000 trays respectively.

The couple don’t deal directly with retailers, instead choosing to sell their gourmet tomatoes to Brisbane Central Markets and Newcastle City Markets and cherry tomatoes to the Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne Central Markets.

They pride themselves on the quality of their produce which has been certified by Freshcare and the Harmonised Australian Retailer Produce Scheme (HARPS).

Mike has a special tip for growers who play tug-of-war with the markets. Instead of giving into their every demand, he recommends leaving them wanting more.

“If the agent wants four pallets, give them three. Keep them hungry. Keep them wanting,” he said. “If you’ve got a good article, you should be able to demand more money. At the end of the day, our quality holds up,” he said.

The Klucks employ trickle irrigation to their crop and have done so for the last 30 years from underground bores. The system is extremely efficient and doesn’t allow water (which varies in quality) to damage the leaves and subsequently impact the product.

A recent focus on sustainability has led them to use an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. They use microbes in their cover crops to support good bugs in the soil and are achieving great results from beneficial insects.
With a packing shed on-farm and an annual harvest window that runs from December through to September, the Klucks have very little down time.

They’re lucky enough to enjoy a temperate climate that sees their tomatoes flourish from summer through winter, which gives them a competitive edge at the markets.

“We’re better off growing a decent amount all year and hopefully catching the market when it’s up. There’s no point only having a little bit if the price is good” Mike said.

“Victoria has a small growing window, so we try to have our peak volume around March, April and May. Generally speaking, that’s also when Stanthorpe growers are at the end of their run and northern growers are not yet picking, so we try to keep the agents happy.”

Due to an extended harvest season, Flagstone Fresh’s staff numbers do not usually fluctuate. They have five permanent workers in the fields and directly employ all the packing shed staff.

“If you treat them right and have a good reputation, they’ll be back. Even in Gatton, word gets around,” Mike said.

“And they go back and tell their friends,” Colleen added. “We’ve had a lot of Taiwanese workers and four or five married couples who have gotten second visas and returned for another season. We’ve never had a shortage of workers.”

Colleen said great relationships precede the good reputation of their business and Mike’s treatment of his staff is no exception.

“He knows all their names and tries to have morning and afternoon tea with them, and we put on a staff barbeque once a month,” she said. “He graces me with his presence at lunch!”

The Klucks also employ the services of three labour hire companies, all engaged in different activities, but mainly tomato picking. These labour hire companies employ up to 80 staff between them including a handful of locals.

Due to their reliance on international workers, Mike and Colleen were disappointed by the Federal Government’s proposed policy to force the horticulture sector to employ local unemployed Australians.

Colleen said many locals simply did not want to do this type of work unless it fits in with their timetables.

“Having to employ locals before being able to employ overseas workers would have been hugely draining and detrimental to our business,” she said. “However, the new changes to the backpacker visas are welcomed.”

In recent years, an overwhelming amount of paperwork for health assurance has taken a lot of the joy out working for Colleen. Mike shares his wife’s opinion that the number of hoops growers must jump through to prove their compliance is borderline nonsensical.

“The thing that gets us is that you don’t get a cent more for doing it,” Mike said. “And there’s so much of it that doesn’t contribute to the business at all.”

Since becoming members with Growcom, the Klucks have benefitted from the horticulture body’s Industrial Relations services which have taken them through organising an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA).

Their daughter Lucy Kluck, who works as a human resources cadet for Growcom, is already planning to help them update their IR procedures for the New Year.

When he strips away the business side of things, Mike delights mostly in the process of growing – those ten weeks between planting and harvesting the earlier crops when he doesn’t have his finger in every proverbial pie.

“That time of year is beautiful when you haven’t got a lot of staff around. It’s during harvesting when you have deal with agents and transport that it gets a bit complicated,” Mike said.

Now with their three children all grown-up, but having not yet flown the nest, Mike and Colleen are in the hobby of travelling. For those few months in between harvest seasons, they’ve been able to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. Their most recent trip to New Zealand took them everywhere around the North Island.

These holidays have been a good antidote to the daily stresses of growing, reminding the Klucks they are more than just farmers.

“You have to separate your life from your work,” Colleen said.

“Whether it’s family, or church, holidays, or fishing – there’s so much more to us than just being tomato growers.”

Flagstone Fresh is featured in the December 2018 / January 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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Written by Sam Allen-Ankins