by Gregor Sieböck
The Waldviertel is a picturesque stretch of land in the north of Austria. The climate is bleak, wind will often whistle around your ears, there are extensive woods and again and again you will stumble across big granite rocks that are strewn around the landscape. Far away from the chaos of big cities, you can find peace and quiet here and walk for hours on end without running into a single person. Atop the gentle hills, views of the vastness of the world open up again and again and so Heini Staudinger, the manager of the Waldviertler shoe factory, said: "In the Waldviertel, the sky is as big as it is in Brazil." And indeed, the Waldviertel has its own unbelievable magic with its constantly changing light, the quietness and the limitless expanse. A place to fall in love with... and once you've experienced its magic, it will remain with you for a long time!
Amidst this unique landscape sits the company Waldland. The business was founded as a specialty crop association in the mid 1980s by 70 farmers, to promote the cultivation of herbs, spiced and poppyseed. A certificate from the monastery in Zwettl that dates back to the year 1280 proves that poppyseed cultivation has been tradition in the Waldviertel for many centuries. Until 1934, Zwettler Graumohn (grey poppyseed) was even traded at the London produce exchange, but the poppyseed cultivation in Austria decreased significantly over the course of the 20th century, due to lacking mechanisation and increasing imports. Waldland wanted to stop this trend. The farmers got together and purchased a special sowing machine, which guaranteed a gentle harvest of the "Grey Gold", invested in a drying and cleaning facility and organised a joint sale of the products. The revival of forgotten and now meaningless cultures were supposed to give the structurally weak region Waldviertel new impulses.
The Waldviertel is perfectly suited for cultivating Graumohn (grey poppyseed). Due to the bleak and humid climate, the seeds grow larger and tastier than in dry cultivation regions and so by now, 950 hectares of poppyseed are once again being cultivated in the Waldviertel - which is about 3/4 of the Austrian cultivation area. The company Waldland already consists of a good 800 member companies, of which about 20%, so about 160 farmers, farm organically; more than the Austrian average! The farmers not only cultivate poppyseed but also herbs, hemp, flax and more "exotic" plants such as amber and Mary thistle - the latter mostly for the pharmaceutical production.
Many years of experience made it possible to cultivate especially aromatic poppyseed varieties in the Waldviertel. The Waldviertler Graumohn is of an extraordinary quality and the quality seal "Protected Origin" guarantees that the Graumohn Waldland sells is both cultivated and processed in the Waldviertel. The Waldviertler Grauman, by the way, has been cultivated to a low morphine content in the past. Contrary to the Australian and French poppyseed, which contains 15,000 to 18,000 ppm (parts per million) per capsule, the Waldviertler poppyseed only contains 1,500 ppm. Furthermore, if the poppyseed is thoroughly cleaned and if one makes sure that no capsule splinters get mixed into the seeds, then the Graumohn has less than 4 ppm of morphine when it gets delivered to the consumers. The Graumohn is sown between mid-March and mid-April. That is a technical challenge because only 500 to 600 grams of seeds are spread across one hectare and the seeds only need to be half a centimetre below the surface. In the first five weeks after sowing it is important to keep the field free of weeds because that is when the poppyseed develops in the field. This can either be done with chemistry or by hoeing, whereas the latter is very conducive to a quicker growth of the poppyseed. In the sprouting phase, the flea beetle is a potential risk. This can either be fought chemically or the poppyseed is planted earlier in the spring - because the vermin only appears at a ground temperature of over 12 degrees Celsius. Once the poppyseed capsules are ripe, the poppyseed capsule weevil can become a problem - unless the temperature is lower, because the vermin doesn't like that. This means the upper Waldviertel has great conditions for the cultivation of poppyseed, because in the area of Zwettl, Gmünd and Waidhofen, no poppyseed capsule weevils exist because of the bleak climate. The region is also well suited for the organic cultivation of Graumohn. Which is why it is especially surprising that the roughly 400 poppyseed farmers of the Waldland specialty crop association plant 600 tons of conventional Graumohn per year but only 15 tons of organic Graumohn, even though organic poppyseed sells for twice as much as conventional poppyseed. Of an overall of about 4500 hectares of total cultivation area of all Waldland member companies, predominantly Mary's thistles are cultivated for the pharmaceutical production. But pharmaceutical companies don't require organic quality. For them it's just important that the products are residue-free, that means free of pesticide residue and heavy metals. Today, products from China are so badly contaminated due to the ever-increasing environmental pollution that European industrial customers buy fewer and fewer Chinese products. And that even though the chives produced by Waldland are almost twice as expensive as the one from China!
It is exciting: when it comes to pesticide and heavy-metal residues, industrial customers have already started to pay attention and turned their back on China. The question is, how long will it be until more consumers realise that pesticide residue is not only unhealthy, it also threatens the ecological balance on our planet? In any case, Josef Zotter buys the organic Graumohn in the Waldviertel and it is one of the best in the world. It grows on organically cultivated areas amidst an idyllic landscape!