Back to the land / Global
Whether it’s Michelin-starred vegetables from Japan or seaweed-based skincare in the UK, rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty opens up a world of business opportunities with which city life just can’t compare.
A new venture often ushers in a lifestyle change: late nights, hours poring over accounts and relentless travel. But what if your business model requires fresh air, early mornings and earthy toil?From Japan to Germany, urban salary men and women are giving in to land lust. And while agriculture often demands hard, gruelling graft and considerable financial risk, a rural cottage industry can quickly become a successful brand. Meet the publisher turned distillery owner, a chef now farming pigs, the ad-man turned seaweed-gathering apothecary, the translator who became a snail farmer and the healthcare provider reviving ancient vegetable horticulture in Japan. A life in the country needn’t be an escape – it can also mean the beginning of a flourishing business prospect.
Masayuki Miura’s fridge is the closest thing Nara, in western Japan, has to a seed bank. In it, Miura stores a collection of heirloom crops that has been over two decades in the making. For years he and his wife Yoko have been chasing rumours and tracking down sightings of unusual vegetables, grains and cereals in Nara’s remote mountain villages. “We were told that most of the region’s heirloom crops were lost but we’re finding more every year,” he says.
Miura (pictured, left) had never thought of becoming a farmer until he and Yoko travelled to Berkeley, California on their honeymoon in the early 1990s. Back then he was a researcher in Kyoto specialising in hospice care. By chance the Miuras met a member of the Sinkyone, a Native American tribe, who invited them to stay and explained the practice of elders staying active in the community as the keepers of farming traditions. “I wondered if we could replicate that in Japan,” he says.
Miura has written a book, hosts seminars and tours for students and researchers and posts blog updates about his goats, bees and rosy bitterling, a freshwater fish. It’s a success story that local governments hope will inspire young Japanese minds to take up farming, a sector where the average age is 66.
As the first outsiders to move to Takahicho village, the Miuras were regarded suspiciously by locals at first. Now they’re part of a close-knit community. “There are 50 people in this part of the village and we often work and eat together,” Miura says.
On half a hectare of land in Takahicho village, Miura shows rows of peppers, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, potatoes, okura, courgettes, cucumbers, aubergines and herbs. Some of it he grows to replenish his seed bank, which he adds to by trading with other farmers. Some Yoko turns into washoku Japanese meals, which they serve at their one-star Michelin restaurant, Kiyosumi-no Sato Awa, opened in 2002. Five years ago they opened a second restaurant a few kilometres away.
For every seed he’s collected, Miura knows how many generations grew the vegetable or grain and what recipes they used. He has also combed through Nara’s ancient records and shared his findings with prefecture officials. “Small villages will only survive if they can showcase what makes them special and connect with people who live elsewhere,” he says.
Spirit of enterprise
Bearded and overall-clad, owner/farmer Christoph Keller might look like he’s always lived off the land but he’s a former city dweller who went bucolic in 2004. Keller (pictured, below right) was working as a curator and art-book publisher in Frankfurt and was looking for a countryside property with his wife Christiane and their two children. “We were tired of city life and late nights in the art scene,” he says. “We wanted to live a more substantial life, with and of nature, and show our kids the biological necessities and qualities of life.”
Their search led them to the Stählemühle, an 18th-century former mill found in a classified advert. During the buying process they discovered that it had a distilling permit. “I’d never distilled anything in my life,” says Keller, who’d originally planned to continue publishing books. “But if you don’t use the permit by producing 300 litres of spirits in 10 years, it expires. I started playing around with it as a hobby.”
The hobby soon turned into a passion, then it became an obsession and now it’s a business employing two people. Stählemühle produces around 180 varieties of artisanal schnapps and fills 8,000 bottles a year. In the past three or four years, the Stählemühle brand has gained a loyal following and expanded to fruit brandies, vegetable and botanical schnapps, and the popular Monkey 47 gin, made under a separate label called Schwarzwald Dry Gin.
Stählemühle relies on a network of partnerships: a custom-made copper still in the barn was co-financed by local partner Alexander Stein while upstairs is an elegant tasting room lined with blonde-wood seating by designer Philipp Mainzer, who runs the acclaimed E15 furniture company in Eigeltingen-Münchhöf. In the former pig stall next door, bottles stand ready for shipping in a storage room. In an adjacent office, Keller researches new botanicals, corresponds with clients (every Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium now serves Stählemühle) and creates packaging and labelling.
Scanning his 24 hectares and inhaling the heady aromas (ironically, Keller rarely drinks but he says there’s enough residual alcohol in the air to give him a buzz), Keller sighs. “Really, working in the countryside means a lot of work, a lot of dirt, no holidays, no bars and no clubbing,” he says. “But it’s more about utopia – turning this farm into a place that elevates raw materials through know-how, not mass production.”
Fat of the land
Santa Ynez, USA
After four years cooking his way up the ladder in New York restaurants, Jake O Francis went south to Athens, Georgia to work as a sous chef. Here, he combined his two passions of raising pigs and cooking to open Pork Chop Hill. “I recognised a niche in the local market for pork raised by a chef,” says O Francis.
Less than a year later he shifted his operation to Santa Ynez, a ranch town boasting lush vineyards and horse stables three hours north of LA. Valley Piggery is a two-paddock free-range pig venture where each animal has a name. From Malty,a 136kg Duroc hog, to
T-Bone, a 10-week old piglet, O Francis can remember every pig raised on the 24-hectare walnut grove. The small-scale piggery uses a model known as community-supported agriculture: a monthly subscription to the farm for private customers. “It is a way for me to not sit on inventory, to move the whole animal and to encourage folks to use unfamiliar cuts,” says O Francis.
Word of mouth has been the sole form of marketing and local vineyards now host pig roasts for their viticulture club members. For more hands-on devotees, butchery workshops offer nose-to-tail education and O Francis sells these cuts, too. “In a sense they butcher them for me while paying me to do it,” he says.
O Francis is frank about the financial challenges the budding farmer faces; bartering plays a large role in his livelihood with meat being the currency. As a whole, the piggery alone has yet to bring home the proverbial bacon. But in upcoming months, Valley Piggery will double in size and so will O Francis’s efforts. “My goal is to work longer, harder and have the lifestyle I want,” says O Francis, who is still cheffing but hopes to become a full-time pig herder. “I’d be doing what I love, living in California, raising pigs and preaching the gospel of pasture-raised heritage-bred pork,” he says as he takes a bite of homemade sausage.
Riding a wave
An early morning mist rests over the grey North Sea as filmmaker and former advertising art director turned apothecary Dom Bridges harvests his seaweed crop on the deserted shore of Margate’s Walpole Bay. He comes out at low tide with his wheelbarrow, pocketknife and poacher’s pouch and works alone filling bags with bulbous, brown-green, knotted weed. “I find a real sense of sanctuary out here,” he says. “After years in the city I’ve realised that the sea is incredibly important to me.”
It was four years ago that Bridges rejected a considered move from London to LA and instead bought a house in Margate on England’s southeast coast. He saw an opportunity in the abundant seaweed that’s hated by locals for messing up the town’s white sands. “I was sitting outside a pub on a sunny day, overhearing people complaining about the smell and found myself thinking about when I worked in Shanghai and I’d eat seaweed every day for breakfast. I knew this stuff was actually amazing; rich in minerals, nutrients and vitamins. It’s just a question of what you do with it.”
Bridges is one of only two people in the UK to hold a licence to gather seaweed. He harvests the sturdiest variety, bladderwrack, and hauls it back to his white-tiled laboratory at the back of his store in the Cliftonville neighbourhood. Here he cleans, dehydrates and steam-distils the seaweed in preparation for use in a range of natural, handmade fragrances, skincare and bath products under the brand name Haeckels – a homage to the late-19th century German botanist, philosopher and artist Ernst Haeckel.
“I taught myself with no background in chemistry, let alone skincare, so it’s been quite a journey,” says Bridges (pictured). “It started out with a batch of 12 soaps. Now I make a face serum, beard oil, body wash, seaweed bath soak, candles and incense.”
Bridges’ brand mission “Made of Margate” means there are more products on the horizon. “I’m working on a range of fragrances that are distilled from ingredients foraged in specific locations around the area: Alexanders flowers, cut grass, concrete.It’s surprising how beautiful things smell.”
Haeckels opened its doors in December 2013. Within two days the shelves were cleared of their brown-bottled stock and Bridges had over £4,000 in his till. Bridges’ business is decisively niche but he has orders from a soon-to-be-opened hotel, while British leather brand Ally Capellino is commissioning a bespoke fragrance. “I can’t wait for someone to come in with their grandad’s smoky jumper and ask me to distil it into a perfume,” Bridges says. “Why not?”
The idea for a heliciculture (snail-farming) venture in the ancient city of Corinth in Greece came to the Vlachou sisters over a plate of €37 escargot in Zürich. For years Athens-born Maria Vlachou (pictured top, on right) had been working in Brussels as a translator for the European Union. But she longed to return to her home country and join her sister Penny (pictured top), whose teaching job in Greece had become increasingly precarious as the country teetered on the brink of a financial abyss. The garlicky gourmet molluscs presented a new start.
“There are so many unexplored opportunities in farming that can be a pillar for Greece to help its people stand back on their feet,” says Maria, standing next to stacks of snail-filled pallets. “We saw that the market [for snails] was huge and the potential was great, especially in a country like Greece with favourable climate conditions.”
Soon after the meal they set about cultivating snails on their grandfather’s patch of land 90km west of Athens. Named Fereikos Helix (ancient Greek for “carry my own house”), within five years the business has gone from producing 30 tonnes of organically grown molluscs to 600. (The Vlachou sisters have increased capacity by incorporating 185 family franchises across three different countries into their supply chain.) Fereikos Helix now produces seven different sorts of snails, ranging from the petit to the gros-gris, which are sold fresh, frozen and canned. Fereikos Helix’s 200 customers range from Spain’s El Corte Inglés department store to the British designer Vivienne Westwood, who used their shells for her 2014 snail-shell jewellery collection.
Over the next year they plan to start manufacturing ready-made escargot-based Mediterranean meals and the sisters are also introducing agrotourism to the business: a chance for people to learn about heliciculture while relaxing at a hotel and indulging in good food and wine.
For all their plans, the shift in lifestyle – from big city to rural farm – has been one of the greatest boons for the two. Penny says the fields give her moments of ultimate serenity and she’s grown rather attached to the molluscs she rears. “I have a special relationship with them,” she says while checking on the snails in the field. “In the late afternoons, when the artificial rain comes pouring down, you can hear the sound of the snails eating. That’s the moment where I completely relax, right before sunset – it’s just perfect.”
Maria agrees. While her communication experience has been key to the development of the business it’s the sense of fulfilment that she enjoys the most. “I feel much more peaceful,” she says. “It’s about the small things, not just farming. As long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can create quality of life wherever you are.”