Making More by Brand Creation

Creating your own food brand based on your farm’s produce can be a chal­lenging but rewarding journey, as arable farmer Thomas Björk­lund and other Swedish farmers can attest.

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 and his grain farm Warbo Kvarn

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.”

Like Bird Phoenix rising from the ashes, Thomas Björklund´s  grain and flour farm, Warbro Kvarn, is on the come-back after much of their produc­tion capacity was destroyed during a fire.

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.

Indige­nous grains farmed organ­i­cally in combi­na­tion with a selec­tive marketing effort have been the success of Warbro Kvarn.

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.”

More about the grain farm Warbo Kvarn

Thomas Berglund and the Almnäs Bruk farm cheese dairy

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.

On his on-the-farm dairy, Thomas Berglund produces his two acclaimed premium cheeses.

“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.

Sold with a story. Almnäs Bruk´s cheese Almnäs Tegel rides on the tale in the past;   chil­dren used to put their feet on the still wet building bricks, which were produced at the farm.

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.

The Almnäs cheeses matures up to two years at the farm before sold to selected stores and restau­rants.

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.”

More about the farm cheese dairy Almnäs Bruk

Alexander and Emeli West­er­lund from Björnäs Farm

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.

A farm store is part of the new twist as Alexander and Emeli West­er­lund carry on the family´s long farming tradi­tion at Björnäs Gård.

“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.

Cattle at Björnäs Gård graze natural pastures from April to about end October and reach matu­rity after about 24 months.

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.”

More about Björnäs Farm

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