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Working outdoors in fruit production

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Portraitfoto von Jessica
Marketing, Zurich Office
© Fotos

Fruits and berries from the farm shop: Jürg Rellstab and Matthias Gantner provide insights into their local fruit production. They also explain what beneficial insects and waste recycling are all about.

Jürg Rellstab’s farm is located in the town of Wädenswil and has existed for over 400 years. His ancestors started the business in 1615 and he is the eleventh generation to run the farm. The business is now surrounded by urban sprawl but still has an idyllic village atmosphere. Both modern housing developments and pastures border the orchards. The sun is shining today and it is oppressively hot. From the farm’s slopes you can see the cool waters of Lake Zurich.

Jürg proudly leads a tour around the premises, which is able to harvest around 50 tonnes of apples and pears per year and two to three tonnes each of plums, cherries and strawberries. Smaller quantities of raspberries, blackberries and currants are produced, but they are no less important to the company – quite the contrary. The diverse range of produce is rounded off by kiwis and table grapes. There is also an in-house cider press, which produces around 30,000 litres of cider for sale. Other farms also bring their apples here to them to turn into cider. ‘We are a small business and would not be able to supply a large distributor – our production is too complex for that. We sell everything in our farm shop or at the weekly market. We want to provide a diverse range of produce so that we are able to sell something throughout the entire year.’

Jürg took over the business 30 years ago. The first thing he did was to stop farming livestock at the farm and start focussing on cultivating fruits and berries. What has changed across the generations? ‘Generally speaking, machines have reduced the hard physical labour required. For example, the forklift truck is now used to transport the heavy crates.’ Back when his father took over the business, it was still full of standard trees. ‘There are almost exclusively bush trees at our site currently. These trees are suitable for cultivating dessert fruit.’ This is because smaller trees are easier to harvest from the ground and can be protected using hail nets.

From a structural draughtsman to a fruit expert

Up to ten employees work on the farm during the harvest season. Matthias Gantner works alongside Jürg in management. The Wädenswil native has worked at the farm for almost eight years and Jürg trained him up as a fruit expert. Matthias has now completed his master farming certificate. ‘Originally, I trained as a structural draughtsman, but eventually I missed actually putting things into practice.’ Without further ado, he decided to do an internship in fruit and vegetable cultivation.

The pair are a well-coordinated team and share the same passion for nature. Both of them answer the question as to their favourite fruit with a smile: ‘Whatever is growing at that time. Every variety of berry, every apple – it’s a joy each season.’ They state that, of course, the best time at work is when harvesting is taking place. By the way, this is done by hand, as it was in the past. ‘I also really appreciate being able to have direct contact with customers at the market,’ adds Jürg.

The business is still very close to the general public: ‘We want to provide local, fresh and delicious fruit to people in the area. We produce this fruit using methods which are as resource and environmentally friendly as possible and with short transport routes,’ says Jürg. Matthias is convinced: ‘Whatever’s healthy also grows here. Seasonality adds so much variety to our plates.’ He adds: ‘Privately as a consumer, I want to know what the working conditions for people in production are like. As a producer, I can offer fair conditions and work with transparency.’ Matthias is dedicated to the ‘Total Lokal’ (totally local) initiative, which shows the general public in Wädenswil on a map where they can buy which products nearby.

Another key point in the company’s philosophy is avoiding waste. Of course, the goal is to have as many top-quality apples as possible, but also to use those which aren’t quite as perfect: ‘We turn them into cider. We turn apples which are too large into dried apple rings and we also make jam. We ensure that, as far as possible, we use everything,’ explains Jürg.

  • Ein Mann betrachtet ein Blatt durch eine Lupe.
    Photo © Somara Frick
  • Ein Mann beim Beeren pflücken, er kniet am Boden.
    Photo © Somara Frick
  • Situation auf dem Markt, ein Mann überreicht einer Frau einige Birnen.
    Photo © Somara Frick

Customers increasingly want old varieties of apples back. Jürg has responded to this demand and once again cultivated heirloom varieties, for example the Berner Rose. The old Boskoop variety, which is a favourite for baking, is also a fixture in the range. ‘However, most heirloom varieties have their pitfalls,’ states Jürg. For example, many of them are not suitable for storage, are too sour, mealy or are not resistant to disease. Heirloom varieties therefore remain niche products. Matthias add: ‘The fact that we produce so many varieties on the small area that we have sets us apart from the large distributors. And we are well-known for our very aromatic varieties of strawberries.’

The pair’s enthusiasm for their fruits is palpable. With a huge amount of dedication, Jürg reaches into the bushes and ensures that everything is right. He turns the leaves over individually and pulls out the magnifying glass to see what’s going on – after all, they have to protect the fruit against fungal disease and insects. The farm produces according to the integrated standard. ‘Even though we are not a certified organic business, we still use techniques from organic production. It is very important to us that we ensure our production is as environmentally friendly as possible,’ emphasises Matthias. Jürg explains the use of beneficial insects: ‘Most pests also have a natural enemy. For example, ladybirds and green lacewings eat aphids. If this population is balanced, the pest pressure is reduced.’ He uses pesticides as little as possible, if at all, to ensure that the environment is comfortable for beneficial insects. He also mows less to leave nest sites and more space for beneficial insects to live.

Where is it all going?

An additional challenge when working outdoors is the dependence on the weather. You need to be flexible, as sometimes the weather changes multiple times on the same day. Planning is a real headache for Matthias: ‘We constantly have to correctly assess the weather forecasts and also pay attention to how many employees we have available. This is because a lot of work often needs to be done at the same time.’ For example, strawberries are planted in August for the upcoming season, while the fruit harvest is still in full swing. It is also key that we choose the right level of ripeness for the individual fruits. On top of this, Matthias also has to deal with uncertain long-term forecasts: ‘In the future I expect increasingly extreme weather conditions such as even drier conditions or heavier rainfall.’ One other factor is decisive to the future of the business: ‘I hope that small businesses such as ours are able to survive thanks to customers who are prepared to pay an appropriate price.’

The team harvest up until November and works at the cider press. What about the winter? Jürg explains: ‘I am often asked what we do in the winter. We finally have time then for maintenance work, cutting trees, marketing, servicing and plenty of office work.’ He smiles: ‘Oh and, yes, there’s a little more time for leisure.’ Even then he is still drawn back to nature, for example to go ski touring.

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