Murray Market Gardens and Solstice Spices
“Every onion, garlic, pepper and herb that fills our jars has been sliced, dried, crushed and blended by Chef Tony’s hands,” reads the Solstice Spices website. The company is the relatively new offshoot of Murray Market Gardens and both are founded on offering fresh and dried herbs carefully grown in Utah by Heather and Tony Peeters.
Eight years ago, Murray Market Gardens started simply enough when Heather, a quiet, petite woman, put in her application to sell fresh herbs at the Murray Farmers Market during the summer. She and her family live in Murray and shopped at the weekend market but saw there was still a need for some other products. “I felt this strong desire to farm and learn what is going on with food,” recalls Heather, when they learned their young son had multiple food allergies. Because herbs fit in a small space and grow fairly quickly, she and Tony—a professional chef by trade—started growing fresh herbs at their home and jumped on the opportunity to sell them to the community.
“That first day, I show up and everyone is looking at me as I pull out these buckets of herbs and three tomatoes and two zucchini and my little tiny table,” she recalls. “They are pretty serious about their farming. I was super intimidated being right next door to Roberts Farm.”
Today, Heather is a board member of the Utah Farm Bureau (the organization that puts on the Murray Farmers Market) and calls her fellow farmers market vendors friends, but the success of Murray Market Gardens didn’t come without hard work and a bit of stubbornness—which has now blossomed into two growing businesses based on heirloom products grown with love and dedication on urban plots around Salt Lake County.
A Business Takes Root
Although the Peeters launched Murray Market Gardens just ahead of the local artisanal food movement, their longstanding success can be attributed to recognizing a need and filling it with care and thoughtfulness. “We have the niche on the heirloom produce,” explains Tony. “None of the traditional guys want to deal with it, and ours is all beautiful.”
The small tables that the Peeters sell from each Friday and Saturday at Murray Park are a feast for the eyes—different than the plastic crates and trailers full of produce that surround them. Baskets of carefully packaged fresh herbs in bags sit alongside heirloom Japanese eggplant, a spice rack filled with Solstice Spices and, during the height of the season, heirloom tomatoes of every color. “We try to make sure that anything we bring to the market is pretty,” Heather says.
Even their herb harvesting technique is based on beauty and freshness. “We cut herbs Thursday night and Friday morning, sell what we can, cut again on Saturday and sell what we can,” Heather continues. “Then anything left, we dry. Sometimes, we’ll dry stuff that is overgrown and, at the end of the season, we’ll dry everything that’s left.” This summer, they’ll be selling five kinds of heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, peas and, of course, fresh herbs.
In years past, the Peeters have spent their non-market time as private (Heather) and professional (Tony) chefs and tending to their urban plots around Salt Lake City. Their own backyard is filled with sweet Genovese basil while Heather’s sister’s backyard contains parsley, oregano, sage, thyme and rosemary. They also grow purple basil and Thai basil. But with the 2016 farm year, the Peeters hope to expand their operations to full-time status with the help of a new farming program offered through Salt Lake County.
The Peeters hold the distinction of becoming the first urban farmers to successfully take advantage of the Farmlink program offered through Salt Lake County, which matches up farmers with private land owners. The arrangement allows land owners to lease their fallow ground to farmers who then actively grow consumable produce on the property and, in exchange, the owners receive an agricultural tax credit.
Tucked back off of 700 East, the Peeters are grateful to have found an oasis in the city where they will be able to combine their time and talent on this one large plot of land instead of as many as eight spots spread across the Salt Lake Valley. Their new farm space offers two artesian wells and water shares with great access to farmers markets. Fruit trees dot the property as well and watercress sprouts from the pond.
The new farm will allow the Peeters to bring more fresh produce to market all summer via Murray Market Gardens as well as grow significantly more herbs to feed the dried spice line of Solstice Spices. Looking back, Heather explains that Solstice was an outgrowth of the fresh herb business and it came about three years ago. “It’s a natural progression for people who grow stuff to want to make something with it. You see people make jam or salsa because they have a lot of raspberries or tomatoes and we happen to have a lot of herbs.”
The Peeters began drying their leftover fresh herbs from the market simply for themselves at first and then for friends and family as Christmas presents—which lead to the name Solstice Spices—celebrating the winter solstice. Those who had received the dried herbs as gifts asked if they could buy them—and Solstice Spices began to take root.
Today, Solstice offers six products: paprika, Mountain Man, garlic herb, For the Birds, chile garlic, and chipotle—all made from regionally sourced ingredients. Many of the individual elements that go into the blends have a personal farming story behind them—something you won’t find anywhere else—and which gives the Peeters peace of mind in knowing exactly where their ingredients come from in the natural food supply chain.
The paprika and chipotle are made primarily from red bell peppers and red jalapenos hand-picked from Petersen Family Farms in Riverton, which Tony smokes and dries before crushing. Similarly, they source their onions from their farmers market neighbors: Roberts Family Farms and Hatfield Farm. Blends such as Mountain Man and For the Birds combine many of those same peppers along with herbs grown by the Peeters themselves—oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, tarragon and more.
And the brand will continue to evolve based on what the Peeters can grow themselves. Heather explains, “We came to a point where we said, ‘Do we try to source or buy some ingredients so that we can make more inventory or do we stick to our locally grown philosophy?’ … we had to make that decision that we’re staying with local and whatever quantity we get is what we get.”
With the addition of the Farmlink garden space and drive to produce more, the Peeters hope to add individual dried herbs to their line of products this year. “We’re trying to do straight herbs like a line of basil, sage, rosemary—all Utah-specific, Utah-grown, Solstice Spices-grown,” says Tony. “We’ve grown all the herbs since Day 1, and we want to keep it that way.” He sees a potential growth market in restaurants and chefs who make every effort to use local products.
Currently, you can find the Solstice Spices products at Liberty Heights Fresh, The Store on Highland, Urban Farm & Feed, Petersen Family Farms, Utah Natural Meat and The Market in Park City, or stop by the Murray Market Gardens booth at the Murray Farmers Market this summer.