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3/11/2009
The Sea Buckthorn King
The Sea Buckthorn King

Sea buckthorn needs one thing more than anything else: sunlight. Kurt Künzi harnesses the sun’s strength and warmth for sea buckthorn. Reign-ing over San Mario farm and the Biodynamic® plants he grows, he is a pioneer of new cultivation techniques—fostering the natural radiance of this majestic plant. But if asked to give title or honorary mention to his feats, Künzi, ever humble and happy, will simply call himself a farmer. And so it is that this visionary farmer has cheerfully cultivated the most beautiful sea buckthorn berries and dappled the Tuscan lands with his sunny radiance. Although not born of Italian blood, he is deeply rooted to his land and his precious, golden plants. He is the first farmer (making San Mario the first farm) to cultivate Biodynamic® sea buckthorn, and the richness of his holistic haven sparkles from the soil to the sky.

IN PISAN MAREMMA, along the southern edge of Italy’s Tuscany region, the sky glows a pure, serene blue, and the midday sun shines deep yellow over the breathtaking landscape. The chain of hills that gently rise from the sea is harmoniously organized: rows of shiny silver olive trees stand in the golden durum wheat fields and can be spotted in vineyards— a traditional form of mixing crops. Some of Italy’s best wines originate here. Adding an enchanting elegance to the panorama, rows of cypress rise like obelisks against the sky. Kurt Künzi’s San Mario farm lies in the midst of this Tuscan garden. Eighteen years earlier, this spot marked the start of his Italian adventure.

“This is where my dream—to breed and farm sea buckthorn—came to be,” Künzi reminisces. But why sea buckthorn, of all plants? Künzi describes his meeting with a Romanian doctor who worked in a children’s cancer clinic. In a search for food plants with the ability to prevent or heal diseases, the doctor had discovered the rich, golden berries nestled within the shrubs’ branches. He told Künzi, “We don’t have any medications, but we have sea buckthorn.” However, as more and more land was developed, the sea buckthorn plant, which grew wild, began to lose ground in its native habitats. Inspired and motivated by the challenge of cultivating this wild plant, Künzi went to work. After 10 years of concentrated cultivation with the help of his wife Gisela, his daughter Martina, his son-in-law Fredy and his Italian employees, the efforts took tangible form. Through growth monitoring and ingredient analysis, the team was able to select—from 120 wild species—those that grew best at San Mario. On 120 acres, which has now increased to 350, several varieties of sea buckthorn were, and continue to be, biodynamically cultivated and collected.

Picking the best:

A tour of the field shows the plant’s impressive developments. “Selecting the right variety comes first, because everything depends on whether the right variety can be found for the location,” says Künzi. “In Maremma, we have a very blue and clear light, which is similar to the mountain light of the Alps. That is why I have found the alpine varieties are best suited to this region.” The mother plant, from which the first cuttings had been taken, once grew wild in a mountain valley in the Bünden region of Switzerland. Today, it is proudly rooted in the garden that lies in front of the farm. The variety from its cuttings was named Gala 1 and boasts vitality and resistance against variable conditions. Because of its high level of vitamin C, this type is used to obtain the juice from the berries. “3.5 ounces of sea buckthorn juice obtained from Gala 1 contains about 600 milligrams of vitamin C. That’s a lot more than is in orange or lemon juice!” exclaims Künzi. “This year we will harvest about 100 tons of sea buckthorn juice.”

The taste and analytical tests of other varieties bring unsuspected differences to light. A fine apricot fragrance characterizes one type. Another exudes a hint of lemon. The colors are also different, ranging from soft yellow to bright orange. Therefore another variety provides the best quality pulp and kernel oil. “Our Gala 7 shrubs are best suited for obtaining sea buckthorn oil for skin care. The kernels are tiny,” he adds. “A ton of berries yields about 2.5 gallons of the valuable oil.”

From branch-to-bottle:

From a slight elevation above San Mario, the nearly 1,000-feet-long rows of sea buckthorn shrubs, with branches densely laden with berries, can be seen blowing in the wind. Hedges, along with little holm oak forests, harmoniously border the fields, offering shelter to many bird species: scops owls, red-backed shrikes, hoopoe and pheasants. A 13-foot space separates the rows of sea buckthorn bushes to ensure each plant receives enough sun. From mid-July to the end of August, the precious summer fruits are harvested with the help of additional farmers and special machines, developed exclusively through cooperation with Künzi and a Swiss manufacturer.

Quick work during harvest preserves the berries’ natural high quality. First the bushes are sprayed with water to prevent dust from sticking to the berries when they are pressed into juice or oil. The harvester’s cutting bar then travels along the rows of bushes, cutting down the branches heavy with clusters of berries, which fall into wooden crates. The ripe berries, still intact on the branches, are immediately taken to the farm’s freezer facility for storage. At this point they can easily be removed from the branches without damage. A special threshing machine separates the frozen berries. They are then carefully packed into containers. Soon they’ll be pressed and used for their vital juices or oils.

In the cool shade of their veranda, Gisela and Kurt insist upon presenting the fruits of last year’s harvest. With an affectionate look at a glass of bright orange sea buckthorn juice, Künzi declares, “This is a spectacular taste of pure, stored sunlight. I deeply respect such a harmonious and magnificent composition that comes from nature.”

Travel through San Mario and experience the magnificent sea buckthorn harvest from the comforts of your home. Visit the Weleda film center: usa.weleda.com/media/films.aspx