by Gregor Sieböck
The Zotter Round-the-World Trip got off to a start that was simply MAGICAL! It started with a spur-of-the-moment decision to have breakfast at the Edible Zoo. My wonderful friends Simone and Tom joined me. All three of us had just arrived from Weyer, where Simone had won the Austrian Duathlon Championship – so we already had something to celebrate...
As we were walking through the Zoo in the morning sun und the warming rays of sunshine hit our faces, I felt a profound sense of happiness well up inside of me. The turkeys were gobbling, it almost seemed as though they were all laughing in unison at a funny story one of them had just told. The highland cattle were grazing languorously in the field and watching the world go past. It seemed like an absolutely perfect place that radiated a great sense of contentment.
Josef Zotter, Robert Rogner, his children and his partner Simone were already sitting at a table in the sun-flooded restaurant having breakfast. Robert was travelling in a circus cart and had set off the day before to visit partners and friends of the thermal baths in Blumau. It seemed as if life itself was calling the shots once again and doing its best to bring us all together. We enjoyed a delicious organic breakfast and I was grateful for the opportunity to share the start of my great Zotter round-the-world trip with such lovely people!
Together with Josef Zotter I held a talk with the press, which was inspiring, and took a tour around the Zoo. Julia Zotter gave us a guided tour of the Chocolate Manufactory, we filmed a few scenes for the documentary of the trip and then spent a wonderful evening in the Zoo, where we had a panoramic view of the striking scenery of the Southern Styrian hills – a perfect end to a perfect day.
The next day Simone and I visited the first stop on the Zotter Round-the-World Tour: the Amplatz artisan honey workshop in Sinabelkirchen. Gerti and Siegfried Amplatz have been running an organic apiary and vegetable farm in Southern Styria for 23 years now. At first the locals did not take them seriously and their competitors who stuck to conventional farming practices tried to marginalise them economically – but the couple proved more resilient than expected. Both come from families of small-scale subsistence farmers. By the time they inherited one of the farms, they were already keeping 17 bee colonies as a hobby. Because they could not bring themselves to slaughter their own cattle, they decided to give up livestock farming and use the land to grow flowers and herbs for their bees – who started thriving more than ever before!
At the same time a farmers’ market opened in nearby Gleisdorf and as Gerti still had 70 kg (154 lb) of honey in her basement, she joined forces with a friend who made dairy products to rent a small stall. From now on Gerti spent every Saturday morning at the market and when they found their business was doing well, the two women started selling at the market on Wednesdays too. In June, Gerti had eight heads of lettuce growing in her vegetable garden. She cut them off and sold them at her market stall – and that’s how Gerti started her vegetable farm. She initially grew vegetables on 50 m2 (540 sq ft) of land, which she increased by 100% every year and to which she also added a plastic film covered greenhouse large enough for 50 tomato plants, with cucumber and chives growing between them. Gerti derived enormous pleasure from every single herb she grew.
The operation has continued to grow since those early days. By now twelve employees grow vegetables on 17 acres of open land and in greenhouses covering another 3000 m² (32,300 sq ft), make 30 to 40 tons of honey a year and keep 800 bee colonies.
All their products are organic because Gerti would never even consider using toxins, artificial fertiliser or large farming machinery. Nor would she ever consider her own views old-fashioned – far from it, she feels very progressive compared to other farmers who will soon be confronted with a choice she made a long time ago when she was still a child. Her mother used to say, "Look how the large tractors are destroying the soil", and little Gerti had to watch their bees die because the next-door neighbour sprayed his strawberry plants with pesticides. So when Gerti started her own farming operation, she always knew that toxins and chemicals were out of the question! Even as a young girl, she had her own ideas of what she wanted and how she wanted it, and all these years later she is still trying her best to make the world a nicer place. Fighting against farmers who use chemical-intensive practices would cost far too much precious energy, so Gerti uses her strength to make the best products she can and to value the earth and her own gifts. Her employees are in charge of organising their own workload and take pride in their own successes. The farm workers also take over a share of the office work in order to develop a varied range of skills, and celebrating together is an integral part of working on the organic farm! On the whole, Gerti seems thoroughly content and happy with her life. Her joyfulness and gratitude for her own good fortune infuse every single product made on her farm.
While Gerti is in charge of the vegetable farm, Siegfried looks after the bees and makes honey. The couple’s beehives are scattered all over the country: their acacia, lime blossom and sunflower honeys come from the large royal parks of the "Wine Quarter" in Lower Austria, their sweet chestnut honey from Southern Styria and their forest honey from the Mugl Alpine meadows near Leoben in Styria. They have a fully automated honey extractor, which can extract up to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) of honey per hour.
Gerti and Siegi Amplatz’s friendship with Zotter goes back many years. The volume they supply to the company has gone down from ten tons to around three tons a year only because Zotter decided to extend his support to other honey suppliers in the region. Our stay with Gerti Amplatz was extremely stimulating! We ended on a high note by cooking pancakes stuffed with cheese and philosophising about life. Simone and I continued our journey in a very happy frame of mind, and over the next few days we would often find ourselves coming back to our stay with Gerti – she was such an inspiring person!