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In the Thal Regional Nature Park in the Solothurn Jura, the «Swiss parks» product label has already been awarded to 14 food products. All those involved are delighted, and nature and the environment benefit indirectly from this commercial success.
"The Thal Regional Nature Park can now be found in Coop supermarkets," enthuses Michael Bur, Regional Products Project Manager for the Thal Nature Park in the Solothurn Jura. Since January 2010, the second-largest supermarket chain in Switzerland has been stocking seven food products with the "Swiss parks" label on its shelves. The specialities with imaginative names like Hosenlupf ("trouser-lift") - a cheese - or Jura-Kette ("Jura chain") - a sausage - are available in 67 Coop stores in north-west Switzerland. "They have made it from the countryside to the markets in the cities: to Basel, Aarau, Baden, Olten, Langenthal and Solothurn," says Bur.
Surprised by the demand. If, at the start of 2009, anyone had asked Michael Bur how many agricultural products from the park would have been certified within two years, he might have been cautiously optimistic and guessed two or three. But the truth of the matter is far more positive. In March 2009 - nine months before the Thal region was awarded the park label by the FOEN and thus officially recognised as a regional nature park of national importance - the Coop came knocking on the door. "Our market research has shown that Swiss consumers are increasingly asking for regional products," says Philipp Allemann, chief meat buyer for the Coop. "Regional foods mean freshness, quality and supporting local producers."
Just three months later negotiations began and in September 2009 the supermarket agreed to include products from the Thal Nature Park in its range. At the start of 2010, the first Thaler sausages and cheeses bearing the product label and the park logo appeared on Coop shelves.
Since then more products have been certified and are now available from village shops and retail outlets in the region. For Michael Bur, the park products are of key importance: "They give a face to the nature park outside its boundaries and project its image to the outside world," he explains. "They are our ambassadors. The Thaler sausage is our Roger Federer: elegant, yet down-to-earth and likeable."
In other parks, park products are also held in high regard. François Margot, Project Manager of the prospective Gruyère Pays-d'Enhaut Regional Nature Park in the Alpine foothills of the French-speaking part of Switzerland, points out that the certified products will help to forge a common identity for the communities making up the park, generate networks among the various players and build bridges, for example between agriculture and tourism. The main focus is on different cheese varieties. As they can often only be supplied in limited quantities and if possible the entire value creation chain in the region should be exploited, sales are made mainly in the park and in the surrounding towns and cities. "Nevertheless, we would be interested in any enquiries from a major distributor," says Margot.
Promoting sustainable regional development. Any benefactor of a park of national importance can apply to use the product label. The label can be used for foods, non-food products and for services. The requirements were drawn up by the FOEN in consultation with the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). "When we did it, we used the guidelines for regional brands that are recognised by the Federal Office for Agriculture," explains Patrik Aebi, Head of the Quality and Sales Promotion Division at FOAG. The goods and services awarded the label should basically be produced or provided within the area of the park, and the main raw materials must come from the region. Simone Remund, project manager for parks at the FOEN, regards the product label as an important way of promoting sustainable regional development. "It is intended to help to preserve natural assets and landscapes, not to mention cultural values, that are typical of the park region, and to bolster the regional economy."
The experiences in the Thal Nature Park show us that the product label really does benefit the entire local economy. Thanks to the label, for example, the Reckenkien cheese dairy in Mümliswil, whose products include the Hosenlupf and the Passwang-Mutschli, can sell considerably more cheese. "We are delighted with our turnover," says cheesemaker Hansjörg Stoll. "The expectations we had of the advantages the park would bring have been met." For farmers too, the increased demand for cheese specialities is a bonus. "The milk for the cheese comes exclusively from local farms," says Stoll. "Because we can process more fresh alpine milk into cheese, the farmers benefit from the higher milk price."
Best-seller. Robert Stübi, a butcher plying his trade in the village of Matzendorf near Solothurn, buys the meat for his certified sausages from 14 farmers. "I find it important to work with local producers," he says. "That way I know where the animals come from and how they are kept. It also means that the animals are spared the long journey to the large abattoirs." Taking stock after a year's cooperation with the Coop, he feels extremely positive about the situation. At times he has even run out of meat. Over the months, demand in Coop supermarkets has settled at a very pleasing level. At the same time, sales in his butcher's shop have grown. The jobs of his ten employees are secure, and recently he added two apprentices to his team.
Because the product label opens up additional potential sales markets for farms, the Swiss Farmers' Union (SFU) is also enthusiastic about the park concept. "In addition to the conservation and upkeep of natural and cultivated landscapes, we expect the parks to help improve economic and social conditions in regions that are weaker in structural terms," explains Julia Zuberbühler, a member of the product label consultative group in the SFU. For the Thal region, this boost is coming at just the right time. It is predicted that the region will suffer a decline in population of more than 18 per cent by 2030. The economic benefits the natural park should bring may counter this trend.
A considerable workload. In the past two years, the Thal Nature Park has done the pioneering work needed for products bearing the park label. "Time and again we have received enquiries from parks that are currently in their establishment phase," says Michael Bur. In the coming years, further products bearing the label may be added, ideally in categories other than just foodstuffs. However, the park authority will no longer be able to provide the all-round support that it has given to the manufacturers of the first 14 products. "The administrative work is considerable. We provide advice to manufacturers and processors, organise and provide support with certification, help with marketing and product launches," Bur stresses. The Thal Nature Park is therefore drawing up a list of services. This sets out the forms of support that the branch office will be able to offer in future to manufacturers and service providers that are interested in the label.
The large amount of work and the resultant costs mean that the product label is in most cases only worthwhile for medium-sized businesses. Farms that sell their products from farm shop have no need for it. In their case, it is quite obvious that the product is local. In addition, only a commercial producer can guarantee that the foodstuffs can be supplied in sufficiently large quantities and at a constant quality level.
Nevertheless, there are economic benefits for the entire region. "These businesses have their roots in the region, they create jobs, train apprentices, use local raw materials and are tightly integrated into the value creation chains," Michael Bur says. "They help to keep the region alive."
Indirect benefits for nature and the landscape. But what use are growing sales of sausages and cheese to nature and the landscape? The benefits are indirect and more long-term. "Partners support the efforts of the park to persuade meat suppliers to provide services that conserve nature, in a way that goes beyond some sort of ecological stamp of approval," as in the case, for example, of the partnership agreement between the Thal Regional Natural Park and the village butcher in Matzendorf. "Opportunities to do this are provided by the canton of Solothurn's nature and landscape programme which runs over several years (agreements on forest margins, summer pastures, hay meadows or hedges), and by activities of the local or regional nature conservation organisations or the projects carried out by the park authority."
No one is under any obligation to do anything. To impose some form of organic farming requirement or other special measures on farmers to encourage biodiversity, for example, would, in Michael Bur's view, be clearly contrary to the park philosophy. Nevertheless he is convinced that the agreements will also bring benefits to nature and the landscape. "If the inhabitants of the region see that the park is bringing them economic advantages, they will also be ready to support or even initiate projects to maintain and encourage biodiversity."
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