The incentives for diving into unchartered waters and building your own brand often lies in one simple fact: The need to shorten the costly line of middlemen and processors, in order to retain more of the consumer´s money at the farm. For small farms that cannot scale-up production and become large commodity producers, this is often a question of survival.
But as Thomas Berglund at the Almnäs Bruk farm explains, even for a large dairy producer like him, supplying through farm co-ops never offered the returns he expected. The way out was creating his own Almnäs Bruk cheeses.
Thomas Björklund, his wife Kerstin and other family members were among the first in Sweden to create a brand for their organically produced heritage grain varieties back in 2002. Farm stores were beginning to pop up at the time, but the Björklunds set out in a more systematic and strategic way of creating a brand and marketing their grains including spelt, emmer and naked oats, which were quite novel at the time.
The decision was prompted when they realised that they were too small to make money as a commodity producer but wanted to remain in farming. “The family sat down to brain-storm and we all tried to visualise what we wanted to do and what we cared about,” recalls Thomas. “We had to come up with something new, something unique; it wasn´t enough to just mill wheat. So, we looked at these old varieties, which have different traits and qualities.”
Growing organically was also part of their vision and strategy, in order to establish a brand which conveyed sustainability and care for biodiversity. “We started out with two hectares of spelt from seeds we had bought in Germany,” continues Thomas. “These varieties were unknown at the time in Sweden.” Marketing something new can be a daunting task and farmers seldom have the means of large marketing campaigns, so finding other channels to get their products to market was necessary.
“We looked up celebrity chefs and bakers to show them something completely new. It was a trend in Europe, and we thought it would work here too. And we´ve always tried to keep personal contact with these people.”
We had to come up with something new, something unique, it wasn´t enough to just mill wheat.Thomas Björklund
Their timing was right and coincided with other food trends that worked in their favour. Soon they had grown out of their first farm, Warbro Kvarn, an 18th century mill, which gave their company its name, history and local grounding.
The fact that size matters, even for small producers, was something Thomas soon became aware of. “We realised we had to grow or quit altogether. Even a small niche player has to work effectively and with some scale of production, because the milling industry is a rather capital-intensive business.” So they grew quickly, by incorporating other growers under their Warbro Kvarn umbrella. At their peak in 2022, they were processing nearly 1,000t of grain. Then disaster struck.
A fire wiped out all but the nearby malting unit, which had been set up in 2018 as means of diversifying. Today, it is still a safety net for their business, and work is now focused on trying to ensure volumes, prospecting the market and making sure Warbro Kvarn is still relevant.
“We knew we couldn´t be off the market for a year or more, so after two months we had some production running,” says Thomas. “The good thing about the fire – if you can say so – is that we now can re-build a more efficient plant. We have several competitors now, so we need to evolve and renew ourselves, and we have some ideas.” He hopes to have production back up at par in 2024.
Looking back on the family’s journey, Thomas realises they made many mistakes, but mistakes that could be corrected. Work was much harder than expected and the need for outside experts and mentors, in his case from Germany, was vital, he says. And mother Gisela gave much needed entrepreneurial inspiration.
The transition from farming to food production involved a lot more admin work, to handle certifications and make sure they follow sanitary and health regulations, as well as tougher employers´ laws. “It has become worse over the years, but it´s something we have to handle and today we have one full-time member staff who takes care of that.”
Thomas Berglund and his family had a different starting point when they set out to build a farm dairy to produce cheese to sell under their own brand at Almnäs Bruk at the western shore of Lake Vättern. They had spent decades trying to get a decent milk price through co-op membership, and came to realise they would have to come up with something else.
“It was a very easy decision and partly emotional,” says Thomas. “I was just angry all the time because the co-ops refused to individualise the ownership and differentiate pay to the members. “We wanted to get out of what I call ‘the farmer´s trap’: Being allotted to bulk production with little bargening power. That is also why we have stayed out of the retail market. We sell to selected cheese shops, restaurants and to some foreign wholesalers.”
Today, he is making more money on the 240-head herd of mostly Brown Swiss cows than he did on his previous 390-head herd delivering milk to the co-op. The decision to make cheese was simple: The farm had previously made cheese in the 1960s, and Thomas found the old recipe and spoke to the original cheese maker. This also made for a good story; so important for marketing new, small brands today. “We can market the cheese, Wrångebäck, as Sweden´s oldest cheese, and it’s certified as an EU regional product.” The other cheese of volume is Almnäs Tegel, a new cheese but one which also relies on the history of Almnäs Bruk.
Like Thomas Björklund, Thomas Berglund also realised that if he was to start his own production, he had to differentiate from others and market something that was seen as exclusive. “There was no point in doing something everyone else was doing – and to market something just by its regionality is not enough,” he notes.
Aiming for the premium market was also preferable, and Almnäs has positioned itself somewhere in the middle of the price range, which Thomas estimates runs in a wide range from €4.5/kg (£3.86) to as much as €65/kg (£68.68) in Sweden. He admits the journey so far has been much more successful than he could have hoped for, although their aims were set high at the beginning.
Part of this success can be explained by the family’s honest assessment that they knew nothing about cheese making, and thus needed training and help from those in the know. Even now, 15 years on, Thomas´s Swiss mentor and adviser comes and inspects the dairy for flaws. “We have been lucky, but we have educated ourselves and hired people with knowledge,” Thomas explains.
It was a very easy decision, and partly emotional, to start cheese production.Thomas Berglund
Connecting to well-known people in the industry and being seen at the right places has been an important part of their marketing, and Almnäs Bruk now sells 30% of its cheese to 10 markets outside Sweden. “Being seen with respected industry people makes us viewed as being good, too,” he points out. Much like the Warbro Kvarn brand, social media has not played a vital role in their marketing efforts, although both feature a company website.
Now, with annual production of about 60t, Thomas is eyeing the possibility of growing to 80-85t. “We had the foresight to build an efficient dairy that could increase capacity, and we can produce those volumes with our existing herd.”
When it comes to following the rules and regulations that are involved in food production, Thomas has had a simple and clear strategy: “Our idea from the beginning was to have a healthy and safe production system, so good they could not pick us up on anything. It is expensive and time-consuming, but there’s no cause for complaint.”
For the young beef-producing couple Alexander and Emeli Westerlund, at Björnäs Farm, 130km north east of Stockholm, social media and internet chat forums are absolutely key for selling and marketing their produce. For Emeli, chatting with consumers and other interested parties on social media is an integral part of her workload.
“If I don´t reply, comment or update on social media I will be bombarded with messages of all forms. And we see that sales are affected immediately,” says Emeli. She is now is working full-time on the farm and is in charge of the farm shop, currently open every second weekend. “I want to be able to meet our customers personally and tell them our story, talk about our meat, give them cooking advice and tell them how we raise our cattle. It is part of our image and brand,” she explains. “We didn´t just want a shed where people come anonymously and pick meat out of a freezer, pay and leave.”
For Alexander, being the 13th generation on Björnäs, which the family has held since the 16th century, it was never an option to exit when considering a new strategy. His history is now part of the marketing message, as is the fact their organic cattle graze on natural pastures from May to November, as part of a project in collaboration with the World Food Forum.
This entails a lot of work in this fragmented rural region. “We can end up having to make some 30 trips in one day to transport our cattle from the farm to our 14 meadows,” Emeli says. In all, they manage some 300ha. “We want sustainable production, so we make use of the whole cattle, including the heifers.” Usually, they keep the animals for at least 24 months. And integrating their business with the cows’ and nature’s cycles has made work more fun and varied, something they can be proud of.
Although the business has developed more than they could have expected, the couple still want to keep risks and investments down and limit their exposure. They also try to manage most of the work themselves, only hiring contractors for larger jobs.
“That is why we decided to sell only vacuum-packaged meat,” says Alexander. “Otherwise, we would have been forced to make huge hygiene investments in the store.” Today they slaughter and process their meat at a nearby abattoir and transport it back to their store in a refrigerated vehicle. This limits exposure to the overwhelming laws, rules and regulations connected to food production and sales.
If I don´t reply, comment or update on social media I will be bombarded with messages.Emeli Westerlund
However, Emeli is thinking about getting their private kitchen certified for making other light complimentary foods. As with the other two farms above, Alexander and Emeli say they knew nothing about the business they ventured into, so courses, reading and seeking help from people with knowledge has been essential.
“And you need to understand your customers,” says Emeli. “I thought everyone who eats meat is my customer, but it’s not like that. I have learnt the importance of knowing our target customer group.” Today, they sell through their on-farm shop and to a few carefully selected restaurants, but they have declined an offer to supply a large supermarket. “That would be the same as competing with yourself,” notes Alexander. “And selling our meat at our store, at a lower price, gives us a better deal anyway.”