Joe Vraca’s big hands reached out to many people in his lifetime, and last week the community returned his generosity with an embrace of its own.
About 900 people attended Mr Vraca’s funeral service at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tatura.
Hundreds of mourners filled the gardens around the church and spilled out onto the footpath in Hogan St.
They heard Sarah Scrimizzi deliver a reading from Ecclesiastes recalling for everything there is a season, and another reading from Karla Scrimizzi telling how the time for departure had arrived.
‘‘I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish ...’’
Mourners also heard how Mr Vraca had faced his final days with fortitude and strength.
Mr Vraca’s casket left the church to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s signature song I Did It My Way.
Guiseppi ‘Joe’ Vraca was born in 1944 in the Sicilian town of Rosolini, and left school at the age of 13 to work on a farm specialising in growing tomatoes.
Each day, Mr Vraca would wake at 1.30am to prepare the horse and load up the cart to be at the market by 4am.
Determined to make more money to support his family, Mr Vraca decided to move to Australia.
Being under 18, he required a sponsor, so pushed his father to migrate.
In 1960, Mr Vraca’s father came to Melbourne, followed by Mr Vraca and brother Cory a year later and the rest of the family shortly after that.
On his second day in Melbourne, aged 17, Mr Vraca started working on the slaughter line at Gilbertson Abattoirs in Footscray.
He and his family could not believe how much money they were making, clearing £27 a week.
After some time at the abattoir, Mr Vraca came to Dhurringile to pick tomatoes and to look for opportunities to pursue his passion for this kind of farming.
Here he was fortunate to not only work in his beloved tomato industry, but to also meet his future wife Mary on his second trip to the area.
In 1964, the couple wed and started building a horticultural empire and a family at Murchison East.
Their eldest daughter Josie was born in 1965, followed by Carmelo in 1966 and Carmel in 1971.
Mr Vraca started growing tomatoes soon after the pair wed, sharefarming with his father-in-law.
During this time, most farmers grew small acreage due to the labour-intensive work, but Mr Vraca tripled the acreage immediately, through determination and a strong work ethic.
Planting 8ha, all the work was done by hand, digging the holes with a hand hoe, planting and watering as they went.
Working alongside his brother, and later his son Carmelo and nephew Joe, the business grew rapidly in the late 1970s and they became an industry leader in both Australia and overseas, instigating some of the first sharefarming tomato work.
The family business specifically grew Campbell 33 (Mighty Red) tomatoes, the most common commercial variety at the time.
Sporting their own packing shed and cool rooms, Vraca Bros and Sons sold to all eastern capitals and, at one time, were in the top four biggest tomato producers in the Southern Hemisphere.
Mr Vraca was also a partner in a wholesaler business operating in the Sydney market.
Spending hours in the beating sun, Mr Vraca earned the name ‘Black Joe’ due to the dark complexion he built up.
He was well known and lovingly embraced the nickname, later creating the Black Joe tomato brand label, which became well-known across Australia.
During this time, he started building up his stonefruit orchard, followed by dairy farming.
An interview for Simmon Pang’s The Local Heroes book in 2008 revealed Mr Vraca’s farming endeavours included 800 head of beef cattle and 700 Friesian cows.
His rotary dairy took 50 cows at a time, with the ability to milk 300 cows an hour.
Production took place 12 months a year and sold to Tatura Milk.
The business also included a 70000-tree stonefruit orchard, as well as lemon trees.
In 2016 — after 50 years of growing, packing and marketing — business interests in the tomato industry were closed to concentrate on other business interests built up over the years by Mr Vraca and his son Carmelo.
Mr Vraca was also known for his generosity and charitable spirit, opening his home to all as a way to show his appreciation to a community that had accepted him and his family and allowed him to fulfil his dreams.
He died peacefully on January 2.
—Geoff Adams and Ashlea Witoslawski