by Gregor Sieböck
He was wearing a t-shirt with a sun printed on the front, wide leather trousers and red glasses. At our meeting he was emanating so much joy that it was immediately infectious! Johannes Gutmann is the head of Sonnentor and his establishment in the northern Waldviertel sells organic teas, herbs and spices! He founded the company at the age of 23 after working as an employee in four different jobs. In those earlier jobs, he couldn't live his talents and his potential and so it was time for a big step. He didn't want to go to Vienna to look for work, but stay in the Waldviertel even though work was hard to find this structurally weak region. Johannes talks about the early stages: "I had nothing. The herb farmers had no turnover and no work. It could hardly get worse - so we decided to work together. At first there were only three herb farmers who were prepared to join me. We were laughed at; after all, we'd turned our backs on chemical-intensive farming from the beginning and cultivated everything organically! That was 25 years ago, when organic farming was still in its infancy. But we believed in it. Organic is a matter of the heart for me and I wanted to live it from the very beginning! That's how Sonnentor came to be!"
Johannes talks about the early stages: "I had nothing. The herb farmers had no turnover and no work. It could hardly get worse - so we decided to work together. At first there were only three herb farmers who were prepared to join me. We were laughed at; after all, we'd turned our backs on chemical-intensive farming from the beginning and cultivated everything organically! That was 25 years ago, when organic farming was still in its infancy. But we believed in it. Organic is a matter of the heart for me and I wanted to live it from the very beginning! That's how Sonnentor came to be!"
At first, Johannes Gutmann sold the herb teas at farmer's markets and in the first organic and health shops. He drove through the northern Waldviertel with an old, decrepit VW bus and collected the herbs from his farmers. Then he sold them himself. While doing that, he usually wore these 60-year-old lederhosen, which he inherited: "They were a bit worn out and greasy but they fit me very well. Soon I was known everywhere as the herb guy with the lederhosen. That nutjob... But the enthusiasm has carried us all. In the beginning we still used to cut the herbs with scissors.
The farmers packed them directly on-site. I provided the bags and labels and collected the teas bit by bit and then sold them at the market. I always paid the farmers immediately, so they could grow along with me - and I never wanted to drive down the price. It is important that the farmers are doing well; all in the interest of live and let live. That's what I call fair-trade!" The farmers packed the herbs directly at the farm, that's how the net product stayed with them. As mere raw material suppliers, they could have hardly lived well off herb tea cultivation, considering the not exactly rich harvest of the Waldviertler ground. If they refined the products themselves, turned them into tea and syrups, spice mixes and creams, then the proceeds looked a lot better. Johannes then collected the products with the old VW bus. So when Sonnentor first started out, he had no warehouse, no none-wage labour costs because he didn't need employers for his "one man show" and no pressure - that's why there was a lot of JOY from the beginning! With time, the Sonnentor teas became more and more popular and that is how the business grew, together with its farmers, step by step, and with mutual trust.
One of his favourite herb farmers is Kurz Kainz. "He was the only man who believed in the idea of Sonnentor from the beginning and who helped it succeed by supplying the best herbs. On only 2 1/2 hectares he cultivates everything that is needed for a tea blend in organic quality. Druid's tea, blossom tea, gourmet tea and relaxation tea come from his cultivation. Hemp, sagebrush, hazelnut leaves and apple meant make the druid's tea especially invigorating. Green oats, marigolds and bergamot make relaxation easier. Kurt Kainz also has a "herd" of two cows to maintain the organic cycle on his farm. He harvests almost everything by hand, the raspberry leaves, the birch leaves or the blackberry leaves are even provided by nature for free. Kurt didn't invest money in large machines and still produces 70,000 packs of herbal tea per year, together with 7 or 8 employees - live and let live! Kurt can live very well off his 2 1/2 hectares of farmland. Someone else might have 40 hectars and use maybe 10 or 11 hectares for herb cultivation. But then he'll need machines to produce more, and in the end, the small herb farmer might live better than the large one."
"If you realise what you don't need, you'll be a lot happier. What more can we do than live? We can't live twice a day, only once. Life is about something completely different than the money we constantly fight about. The secret of success is in ease, in joy and in laughter! And no one can live this joy for me, it has to come from within myself. What is healthy from the root onwards will grow and radiate health. For me there is no boring daily routine, each day is exciting and brings something new. I get up in the morning and go to bed at night, that's maybe the only routine in my life and in-between I experience a lot of joy and fun. I don't even notice that I am working," says Johann Gutmann.
Today, Sonnentor has 180 employees and sells 700 tons of herbs and spices. 150 farmers produce their goods in Austria, but there are also areas of herb cultivation in the Czech Republic and in the far away Albania. The exotic spices come from overseas and products such as tea, herbs and spice mixtures are exported into more than 50 different countries.
"Our criteria for a good product are strict. For all end products applies: no artificial colours, no artificial flavours and preservatives. Even though all products are produced organically, we still check everything that is delivered to us microbiologically, and also for metallic contaminations. That's how we end up paying 300,000 Euros a year for checking for pollutant residues. Our quality management system "Total Quality Management" serves as a professional basis and protection. We want that everyone who buys a Sonnentor product can trace right back to the very field where his or her indulgence came from. Many good souls have accompanied the herbs on their way from the field to the shelf. They have been touched by many hands. And together we have continuously mixed them into new blends, until we had more than 600 different products in our assortment. And there is no end in sight yet. Herbs make creative!"
The company is based in a small village called Sprögnitz, near Zwettl. Johannes Gutmann bought and refurbished an old farm there in the beginning of the 1990s. In the meantime, more warehouses for herbs and spices have been added. The farmers still pack them on-site if they want to, but some also stop by in Sprögnitz and pack up their herb teas at Sonnentor - this way they get a bit of social exchange and, on top of that, a free lunch in the canteen, like all Sonnentor employees - it really is one big family and this is can be felt clearly when walking through the company!
The packaging materials have been entirely ecological since 2009, by the way. Plastic has been replaced with renewable cellulose. Johannes Gutmann visited his farmers in Albania and discovered a rubbish heap in the middle of the idyllic wasteland: "That's when I realised that we at Sonnentor also wrap our products in plastic and that it takes decades for it to decay. I was searching for alternative solutions and discovered a supplier of ecological packaging materials at the organic trade fair. Together we developed the new Sonnentor packaging from renewable and compostable cellulose."
And Zotter? "We first met a few years ago. I thought he's the same kind of nutter that I am, I like him, we live in a similarly crazy world. I began to sell his chocolate in the Sonnentor shops and Josef Zotter buys his herbs and spices from us. Then, at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, we developed the Blumau manifest, together with Robert Rogner from the Thermal Spa Blumau, and postulated: "We are doing fine, we'll let the crisis do what it wants and keep living our dream. The consciousness of the people is growing and so even the consumers feel that we are different: we work consistently organic and we also let others lead a good life - as I said, live and let live. Long live JOY!"
By the way, everyone can visit this joy. Sonnentor opens its doors for visitors and it is a truly great experience to stop by ... maybe even in conjunction with a beautiful hike through the idyllic Waldviertel. More information at www.sonnentor.com