by Gregor Sieböck
Franz Seidl is someone really special! Deeply rooted and yet free, down-to-earth and very innovative - that's how to best describe the CEO of Estyria. His metier are pumpkin seeds - but of a quality that is hardly reached by others.
He started out as a simple worker. Back then the company did not have pumpkin seed in its programme but specialised on maize cultivation. The early 1960s were mostly about cultivating high-quality seeds to yield better crops. The maize association was rather successful in doing so; but only until Austria joined the European Union. That's when Styrians moved from a protected to a free market and prices plummeted. The farmers realised that, from now on, they had to grow something that not everyone could produce and that was, in a sense, unusual. They decided to switch from maize to pumpkin seeds, built an oil mill for pumpkin seeds and began to offer anything and everything to do with pumpkin seeds: from the seeds to providing expert service in the area of cultivation, the machinery, the harvest and final processing. At first they only devoted themselves to conventional farming and in the late 1990s, they also expanded their organic product range. Today, 20 % of the sold pumpkin seeds are organic, a number that continues to increase steadily.
During my visit at Estyria, I noticed how closely connected organic farming is to whether or not one can actually imagine what organic means: one might see only obstacles and limitations, another might use these challenges as a trampoline to get to places that would have remained unreached otherwise! It is quite humid in Styria, which in turn is conducive to the growth of weeds. Thus the widespread opinion emerged that it is impossible to cultivate organic pumpkins in Styria because they won't grow due to the rambling weeds if chemicals are not used. A man hour costs between 10 and 15 Euros, which makes the labour-intensive weed removal by hand impossible, or so is the common perception. But, as Henry Ford once said: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right!"
And then he stood before me and taught me better! His name was Gerald Ladenhauf and he met me with a huge smile on his face. As we were walking across his pumpkin field, we got caught by a thunderstorm, as if lightning and thunder wanted to underline his words: "Of course you can grow organic pumpkins in Styria - how else would they have done it in the old days, before chemicals existed?" And the weeds? "Yes, the weeds grow rampantly, but they can be cleared mechanically or by hand. We grow pumpkins on 4.5 hectare and, once a year, all our friends and family get together and we pull up weeds. It is always a special event that everyone looks forward to. While we work we have time to exchange stories and, in the evening, there's always a big party. Such fun! Thus, weeding the pumpkins is always an occasion to meet everyone and then celebrate! We manage 1.5 hectare a day, which means the celebration stretches over three days. Is there anything better?" So the Zotter pumpkin seeds grow from storytelling, joy and celebrations. Is that why the pumpkin chocolate is so popular?
For Gerald Ladenauf, the organic farmer who delivers his pumpkin seeds to Estyria, there is either organic or conventional - but not both at the same time! To him, it's about an approach to life. "Chemical-heavy farming has existed for 50 years now and how many problems do we already have after one generation? In the medium run, organic is the only way to go to sustain a healthy eco system. Of course this comes with a few challenges: there are the weeds on the one hand and the restriction to natural fertilisation on the other. Though the best fertiliser for pumpkins is crop rotation. That's why we only plant pumpkins on the same field every three to four years. We alternate growing pumpkins with grain, field beans and clover. That works great." Mahatma Gandhi once coined the phrase: "Once the decision to do something has been made, it is easy!" So it is the conscious decision for organic farming that decides whether someone only sees the obstacles or, likewise, also the challenges arising from it! By the way, organic farming is of especially pivotal importance even to people in the case of pumpkins, because pumpkins cleanse the ground of pollutants. If there are pesticide residues in the ground, pumpkins absorb these and store them within the fruit. Ten years after certain sprays had been banned, they could still be found in pumpkins. The same is of course true for chemicals that are still legal, but still by no means health enhancing. The pumpkin transports them directly to the person! Only organic farming uses no chemical sprays and fertilisers at all, which is why no pesticide residues can be found in organic pumpkins!
However, Franz Seidl and Estyria don't only offer organic pumpkin seeds from Styria but also conventionally produced seeds. The seeds are from Styria, Lower Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Ukraine and even from China. Depending on what the customer is prepared to pay, the various seeds are delivered. Franz is most happy to deliver the seed power from Styria and so I can feel his inner joy when I ask him how the sale of pumpkin seeds from China was doing. "The Chinese seeds still comprise 20% of our sold pumpkin seeds, but after years of steady increase, the Chinese share has finally decreased this year. The customers have realised that European quality is simply better! For years it was mostly the large bakeries that asked for the cheap goods from China. For the company to survive economically in these days, we had to offer the entire range of products: from organic and regional to conventional and China. But now the need for organic and regional is growing!"
We pay a visit to the factory and I can feel how professionally everything is organised. Instead of outsourcing the production, Franz Seidl always held the following opinion: "It's best to have everything in-house because only then can we guarantee the quality of our products. Furthermore, the individual qualities are not being mixed. If someone, like Zotter, asks for regional organic quality, then that is what they will get, and there will not be one single Chinese seed among the delivery!" Overall, the Chinese pumpkin seeds are declining. Franz Seidl's vision of "Styrian and regional" should more and more become a reality over the next few years. Franz really is a visionary, but one who actually puts his vision into action. Is that why a large photo adorns the wall of his office, saying: Boss of the century? The picture was a gift from his employees because he works the longest hours and has always stayed true to his vision: Seed power really does come from Styria!