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Salus Chile: the southernmost tea plantation in the world

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

The origins of the companies Salus Chile and Floradix Chile go back to the early 1990s. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the herb specialist Salus – its headquarters are in Bruckmühl in Upper Bavaria – had difficulty in sourcing sufficient volumes of uncontaminated raw materials. Even before the catastrophe, the firm’s owner Otto Greither had been interested in Chile, having discovered its huge biodiversity, nature still intact and a climate well suited to growing herbs. It was the need to find new agricultural land outside Europe that led to the plan to create a company in that faraway country along the Andes. (Picture: Company owner Otto Greither on the right and managing director Peter Brunner in front of the production facility in Villarrica)

From the tea plantation on the southern slopes of the Salus farm (near the town of Villarrica), you get a wonderful view of the snow-covered peak of the Villarrica volcano and the fields and forests down on the plain. Even though growing genuine black tea (Camellia Sinensis) is not common in these latitudes, Salus took the risk. “We’ve got the southernmost tea plantation in the world,” explains Pablo Diaz (picture below on right). He is the assistant to the managing director Dr. Peter Brunner, who set up the company Salus Chile 18 years ago. (Picture: Tea growing on high ground at Salus Farm)

Strictly speaking, there are two companies that operate independently of the German parent company Salus Haus. Salus Chile runs the 600 ha farm and is in charge of cropping, drying and processing. Salus Floradix is responsible for marketing, for example the tonics Kindervital or Floradix that are imported from Germany, and tea, dried fruit and linseed that are produced in Chile. With this product range, Salus Floradix supplies both the domestic and the export markets. Well equipped with machines and employing up to 200 workers in the main season, the company is able to process even large harvests rapidly and carefully. For example, every year about 20 t of artichoke leaves are harvested, dried and shipped mainly to Germany. (Picture left: With their equipment, the harvest is processed rapidly. Pablo Diaz in front of the drying cabinets)

What made the company decide to transfer a major part of cropping to Chile was the worst-case scenario at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. With the help of his product developer and chemist Dr. Peter Brunner, Greither found a suitable farm in the region of volcanoes and lakes in southern Chile. Brunner’s wife comes from Chile, so she and her parents helped in the search in the Araucania region (750 km south of the capital Santiago) for a farm that would satisfy Greither’s requirements. Futa Coyan (“Many Oaks” in the language of the Mapuche Indians) seemed to be just right. In 1991, he signed the purchase contract, and a year later Brunner set about the challenging task ahead. Today, Salus Farm uses about 200 ha out of a total area of 600 ha for the cultivation of around 25 crops, tea, herbs and fruit. The farm produces about 220 t of raw material a year, two-thirds of which are exported. (Picture: Otto Greither and Peter Brunner visiting the show garden at the entrance to Salus Farm)

Otto Greither, the owner of the company, and Peter Brunner, the head of the two farms in Chile, are both keen to grow as wide a variety of crops as possible. Indigenous trees and bushes are tended in a special tree garden, and on a big test and propagation plot (2.5 ha) you find 120 different annual and perennial plants and shrubs. It’s here too that smaller numbers of medicinal plants like arnica, lady’s mantle, yellow gentian and cowslip are grown. By breeding and propagating seed themselves, Salus is not dependent on suppliers of seed. They can compare and acclimatize varieties on their protected plot, and it was here that they found out which tea variety was best suited to the climate – the one that now flourishes on the larger-scale tea-growing plots.

An important part of the farm is a herd of about 400 ewes. “The sheep take care of the countryside and supply dung,” explains Pablo Diaz (picture above on right), and with considerable pride he adds: “Our certifier IMO often holds up Salus as a prime example of an organic farm.” (Picture: The herd of sheep takes care of the countryside and produces natural fertilizer)

By specializing in certain plants that grow especially well in Araucania and whose quality is of a very high standard, Salus meets the challenge of competition from low-wage countries. “As well as competition from low-wage countries, the poor dollar exchange rate is not helping us to export,” says Brunner. He points out that pressure on price is increasing and, moreover, market requirements have changed radically, especially in the last ten years. He gives the example of restrictions in the field of medicinal products. Despite these developments, Salus has grown on the domestic market by 20 % a year from 2007 to 2009. As a consequence of a severe earthquake and other factors, 2010 was a year of crises and slower growth. (Picture: Salus Chile is an important employer in the region)

The company is always on the lookout for niche products, a rare occurrence in the market but therefore in demand and commanding high prices. “With our expertise and our own agricultural land, we’re flexible and can react rapidly to special requirements,” Diaz explains. Thus, Brunner (picture) reports that in recent years the demand for mullein flowers and leaves and red clover blossoms has developed very well. The list of important products is long, ranging from artichokes, calendula, eucalyptus, St. John’s wort, cornflower and lavender to mullein, willow and hawthorn. “We were the first people here in the south of Chile to engage seriously and on quite a big scale in organic agriculture,” says Otto Greither, and he points out that in Chile Salus is a pioneer in wild harvesting too. The owner of the company – now over 80 years old – is a vigorous opponent of GMO. He visits his farm in Villarrica at least once a year.

The major customers for raw materials and semi-finished products are the main arm of Salus in Bruckmühl and the firms Schoenenberger and Herbaria, who sell on the products to the wholefood and health food trade. Since the middle of 2010, the chain Vitalia has belonged to the Salus group and is one of the most important sales channels for the Salus brand. However, the finished products are also available in all trade formats in Chile: teas, chocolate-coated dried fruits, apple rings, cider vinegar, linseed and Floradix. Nearly 30 % of production stays in Chile and is sold to pharmacies specializing in natural products (Knob, Hahnemann) and to supermarkets (Jumbo, Totus, Unimarc). (Picture: Salus products are on sale in many outlets in Chile)

Salus Chile will export to any customer anywhere. “New markets in Europe and all over the world are always of interest to us,” says Brunner. “We’re always keen to establish new contacts.” The state-run Chilean agency for the promotion of exports, ProChile, makes an important contribution to opening up new markets. For example, in the context of support for exporting, Salus Chile took part in the Fancy Food Show in America. Working together with the Chilean association for gourmet products, displays were created to present Chilean specialities in retail outlets in America. In addition to its activities in the United States, Salus already supplies many countries in Europe, Canada and Japan. The company will also be taking part in BioFach in Nuremberg. (Picture: Pablo Diaz inspecting tea bushes)




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