For the past 30 years Jakob Studer has been growing aromatic herbs at the foot of the Jura hills – working in particular for a well-known Swiss sweet brand. What is his recipe for success? A special relationship with nature and aversion to risk.
Standing almost half a metre tall, with small bright blue petals and long pointed leaves, Hyssopus officinalis, or hyssop, is a herbaceous medicinal plant from the labiate family meaning ‘sacred herb’ in Hebrew. It is also Studer’s favourite.
“It looks like thyme but in fact it’s very different. It’s a strong plant, which is always looking for new territory and is capable of surviving in wild areas,” explains the 68-year-old herb gardener who lives in Attiswil, a village halfway between the capital Bern and Basel.
We are at the “Alpfelenhof” herb farm, which has been passed from generation to generation in the Studer family. Jakob was born and grew up here. After living in other parts of Switzerland and abroad, he finally returned to settle down in Attiswil.
Situated at 600 metres above sea level, the property has a view of the lower-lying regions and the Swiss Alps in the distance. Alpfelenhof is a peaceful, green home for numerous 100-year-old fruit trees. Five wooden crates, set in front of his herb gardens, are the private gardens of his grandchildren.
Studer shows us an anthill a few metres from the terrace at the front of his house.
“These are wood ants. They don’t go into homes,” he explains proudly as if talking about a pet. In the middle of the anthill stands a hyssop.
During his training to become a successful herb gardener, Studer got inspiration from a number of different people.
“When I wasn’t even 20 years old, I went for a year’s training to Denmark at the home of a slightly crazy but technically gifted farmer. He used intensive farming methods and constantly tested new things. For example, he produced cabbage seeds that couldn’t be found anywhere else,” Studer explains.
Studer still remembers the third day of his stay in Denmark.
“The farmer asked me if I’d heard of Jeremias Gotthelf,” he explains.
The 19th-century Bernese pastor and novelist, who dedicated a large part of his literary work to peasant life, was apparently an important figure in the curriculum of Danish agronomists.
As a young Swiss farmer Studer was not familiar with Gotthelf, but out of curiosity he decided to pop one of his books into his rucksack during his regular refresher courses in the army. Gotthelf’s work would later accompany him throughout his career as an herb gardener.
“The novel Ueli der Knecht (Ueli the farm labourer) taught me that you should only invest money you have earned and not that which you hope to earn later on,” he explains.
He has always stood by this idea: “I have never taken risks that could ruin me, even if things have not always been easy.”
Like his Danish mentor, he has also tried his hand at seed production.
“As there are no salad burnet seeds [a remedy for stomach ache and coughs] on the market, we tried a new experience. I tried things out and it worked,” he adds.
Help from a gangster
Up until 1981 Studer’s farm produced milk and raised cattle. That year, with help from his wife Esther, a vegetable farmer, he decided to start growing aromatic herbs. Luck would have it that at that time an inmate from the nearby Schöngrün prison was working on his farm.
“He was a professional gangster, a bank robber who got caught several times but who loved to grow aromatic herbs,” Studer explains.
“The person in charge of the prison vegetable garden provided us with the first seedlings. The prisoner, a very intelligent, eloquent man, who was not a lazy kind of person, wrote letters to a research institute, to the competent federal authorities and to the firm Ricola,” he explains.
In 1982 Studer delivered his first dried herbs to the Basel firm. At the time, 15 Swiss farmers grew herbs for the firm, famous in Switzerland for its cough lozenges; now there are 100. Most of Studer’s crops are bought by Ricola.
On his 23 hectares of farmland he grows 30 different herbs according to strict ecological principles: common yarrow, lady’s mantle, peppermint, thyme, lemon balm, oregano, sage, fennel and many more.
During harvesting, which lasts from the end of May until September, three tonnes of herbs are dried every two to three days. Eight farm workers from Romania, Ukraine and Poland lend a hand. Studer prefers old traditional varieties to newer herbs.
An everlasting passion
Even though most of the work is carried out by machines, Studer has not lost his sense of detail or love of nature. As he rides round his farmland on a bicycle, he smells the plants, wet prairies and cut grass and is able to easily recognise the different fragrances.
When he talks about local species of plants which have difficulty coping with storms, about herbs which you have to handle very carefully or risk losing their aroma, or even plants that arrived in Switzerland via the Balkans or Black Sea by chance, you have the impression Studer is talking about human beings.
Ten years ago he officially signed his farm over to one of his three sons. But his passion for growing plants and his hard work with herbs remain with him. You can see it most clearly in his hands, which are in contact with the soil every day.
(Translated by Simon Bradley), swissinfo.ch