08 Mar 2018

Hard work underpins success

For nearly 60 years, the name ‘Stoeff’ has been synonymous with the successful greenhouse industry in South Australia. Many people know Boris Stoeff as a trailblazer for the cucumber industry, and behind him a steadfast woman who light-heartedly admits, “Boris was the boss, but I bossed him around”. Since Boris’s passing in 2011, Mary, an experienced tomato grower and businesswoman in her own right, has been at the helm of B & M Stoeff Glasshouse Supplies. Mary shares her story with Rijk Zwaan.

A strong work ethic

"My parents owned a tomato farm in Fulham Gardens, a western suburb of Adelaide in South Australia (SA). Dad was pretty strict and his property was immaculate, there wasn’t a weed in the place. He’d give me a jam tin and I’d be pulling up the weeds while the kids across the road would be playing – that’s how I grew up! Back then it was compulsory to go to school until you were 14 years old, so as soon as I turned 14 there I was building glasshouses, digging postholes, putting posts in, handing dad glass and going out with him at four in the morning to load the truck with chicken poo. I haven’t had much schooling, but what I have learnt is through experience. I don’t think I’ve done too badly."

The start of a partnership

"Boris was brought up in a little village near the Turkish border in Bulgaria and he fled as a refugee. His first job was on the Snowy Hydro Scheme in Cooma where he worked in the surveys section. He was there for two-and-a-half-years and then heard of Bulgarians working in glasshouses in Adelaide. He came over with two mates and leased the property next door to me. I used to sneak out at night to meet him.

Boris built our first house and glasshouse at Virginia (on the rural outskirts of Adelaide) at the end of 1958. We got married the next year and moved to the property. With a three-year-old and one-year-old, I’d be in the 12 tomato glasshouses all on my own while Boris worked as a carpenter. Since I’d been involved with tomatoes from the age of 14, I was an experienced grower."

Horticultural business services

"In the early days, as soon as we picked tomatoes there was no money left so we’d have to go and find jobs in the off season. For three years we did not go out to dinner or to the movies! We did build up though and started importing glass, first from Czechoslovakia and then China. Not long after we got the sole distributorship in Australia for horticultural glass. Next we started selling chemicals, seed and tomato twine. In later years we also sold plastic film for greenhouses.

People really trusted Boris. Ask any Vietnamese grower in this region and they will say, “Boris helped me a lot, he was a good man”, because he gave them credit and he advised them honestly. We would get visitors asking him what to plant or bringing in sick plants and asking him what to do with them."

Revolutionising the Australian cucumber industry

"In the mid-80s, we started growing cucumbers and found they were going limp very quickly. We’d heard in Holland that cucumbers were being wrapped so Boris went to Holland and Spain to have a look at the machines. We then bought one and it happened to be Australia’s first wrapping machine. Around the same time we became the sole distributor for Rijk Zwaan seeds in South Australia. Rijk Zwaan has always looked after us, and we’ve looked after them.

When we were packing cucumbers, we couldn’t keep up with it. We had up to 80 bins of cucumbers at a time. I’d be in the office doing paperwork until midnight and Boris would be shifting bins around and we’d be back at work at 7am the next morning. Then he started delivering to Coles and Woolworths and I’m thinking, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into!’ We did that for a couple of summers, all while still selling seed."

I wouldn’t change a thing

"The business today primarily sells seed, twine, greenhouse film and clips for tying capsicum. It’s now a women’s show around here. My daughter Denise helps in the office and my offsider, Vera Danjko, keeps me organised. Vera has been with us for 33 years – she originally came to pick cucumbers for pocket money!

People tell me that they can’t believe how much I do at my age. Now I’ve slowed down and I’m riddled with arthritis, but I still try and keep on the go.

I wouldn’t change a thing, looking back at our life there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I’ve done something well."

For nearly 60 years, the name ‘Stoeff’ has been synonymous with the successful greenhouse industry in South Australia