Franz Habel – A Man for All Seasons

 

 

Bargain offers of fresh meat are important for supermarkets because they entice customers to shop in their stores. It also means there is permanent price pressure on the production chain. Many farms cannot keep up with these demands and, while some close down, others turn into mass production sites that have little in common with traditional farms. Either way, it’s the animals that bear the brunt. One who has made it his mission in life to resist this development is Austrian pig farmer Franz Habel.

To market his hams, Franz Habel, alias Vulcanofranz – and how he signed his text messages when we coordinated the appointment – finds himself traveling frequently. Zurich is one of his regular stops, and he has several appointments lined up here today. On this sunny, yet cool morning he shows up wearing a green felt hat, white shirt, solid walking shoes, and carrying a leather briefcase filled with brochures and leaflets. On our way down to the lake where Mr. Habel says he’d like to hold the interview (because it’s the prettiest place in Zurich) he stops at a small coffee shop to order a tea-to-go. Upon receiving his order, he doffs his hat in thanks, calls out “Servus!” to the barista, and exits the small venue, his robust friendliness leaving a few surprised faces in his wake. As we arrive at the lakeside, he greets the swans with a hearty “Hi there!” and sits down cheerfully on a bench at the water’s edge. Absolutely nothing, he exclaims, beats nature. Then suddenly, before the interview has even started, something gets knocked over and the recording device falls into the water. “Uh-oh,” Vulcanofranz says and jumps up. “Do you still need that?” And without waiting for an answer, he’s – unbelievably – already stripping off his shoes and trousers. “I’ll get that back for you, don’t you worry,” he says and gingerly lowers himself into the cold water. After uttering a short “Brrr!” he dives down to locate the cell phone, resurfaces with the lost gadget held up high, splutters, snorts, and hoists himself up on the edge, out of the lake. He won’t let himself be helped either. “That’s just our way where I’m from!” the Austrian native says, waving aside our profuse thanks and pulling his dry clothes on over his wet underwear – “I have to go to my next appointment at 9:00 a.m.” He doesn’t look at all put out, despite water from his wet hair dripping into his eyes and damp marks appearing on his trousers. “May I start?” he asks politely.

Franz Habel hails from Styria, or Steiermark, one of Austria’s nine states. There, on a mountain slope in East Styria, in a small village called Auersbach, lies his pride and joy: His farm, his house, his ham. With its rolling landscape, the region boasts fertile soil and a mild climate ideal for growing wine and vegetables. Here, the Austrian pig farmer has made a life for himself and his family. Together with his wife, Bettina, and their three daughters, he runs the farm he took over from his parents in 1997 at the age of thirty. The price for pork had been eroding steadily after Austria joined the EU in 1995, and this started him thinking. “At one point, we pig farmers began losing our understanding of what farming is really about,” he explains. “The rule became: The larger the farm, the lower the prices. In the long run, no small farm can compete. I have always been a hard worker, but I knew that, however much I worked, it would never be enough.” He clears his throat and shrugs. “So I said to myself, Franz, no matter how hard you work, how big you become, you’ll always only be just a tad bigger than small. And then I thought: When I die, I want to be able to say that at least I tried!” And so, with several other pig farmers from the region, Franz Habel founded the Vulcano Fleischwarenmanufaktur, in English, the Vulcano meat manufacture. They agreed to concentrate on one specific breed of pig (the German Edelschwein, or Large White), introduce healthy feeding conditions, commit to respectful processing, and employ a special curing procedure; this is then rounded off by an unusually long maturing period of the hams. Together, the farmers were able to cover all aspects of the production chain.

You can do just about anything in this world, but you should never harm humans or animals.

His pigs, that the pig farmer visits and talks to several times a day, can choose between being outdoors or staying inside their comfortable pigsties. They even have a showering facility. “We think it’s important that the animals are treated with respect,” Mr. Habel explains. “They are fed mainly grains, for example, rye, which is low in poly acids, meaning we can let the products mature at higher temperatures. The pigs also grow more slowly with this type of feed, resulting in a better marbling of the meat and making the meat more tender.” At no point in the entire process are synthetic ingredients used. The hams are produced in an entirely natural procedure: They are prepared by hand and seasoned only with a modest sprinkling of sea salt. “The meat itself already contains over one hundred flavors,” he explains. Too much spicing would just cover up the natural taste.

Indeed, too much of anything, however good, does not sit well with Franz Habel, although he wants his business to grow and be successful. In fact, the venture expanded so fast that Mr. Habel’s initial partners decided they would rather continue solely in the capacity as suppliers. Since 2010, the Austrian has entered into a new partnership with financier Christian Trierenberg. This arrangement has greatly improved the distribution chain and led to his farm being converted into a “wonderful world of ham.” “I like taking big steps,” Mr. Habel tells us with a small cough. “Things should always go forward. Because you know,” he starts, and then gives us an earnest look. “You can do just about anything in this world, but you should never harm humans or animals.” In everyday life, Mr. Habel is very down to earth, and he prefers to walk barefoot whenever he can in order to feel more connected with his surroundings. “I pay a lot of attention to what I eat,” he tells us. And goes on to explain, “After I’ve eaten a meal and left the table, I still want to have enough room in my stomach to eat the same quantity again. And if need be, I want to be able to run a one-hundred-meter dash. I don’t enjoy feeling full and groggy.”

When I die, I want to be able to say that at least I tried.

After talking to Vulcanofranz, we’re surprise to hear he has only five key principles guiding him through life. After all, his stories are sprinkled with a multitude of aphorisms that wouldn’t look out of place in one of those little calendars with daily maxims. Without losing steam – it’s nearly nine o’clock! – he continues his impromptu lecture, though not without first clearing his throat. “First principle: Stay calm. Which I’m bad at, so it’s very important.” He laughs and slides back and forth on the wooden slats of the bench. “Next: Discipline. The third is to believe firmly in the things you want to achieve. Fourth, and this is very important: Friendliness. Whether man or beast, treat them with friendliness. I talk to my pigs every day, and I treat them the best I can. They deserve a good life. But the most important principle comes last: Lightness. So many people believe ‘In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.’ A philosophy that is deeply rooted in the Catholic faith.” But Mr. Habel has a different approach. “You have to be careful of taking on too many burdens in life. Because if something is very heavy to carry – or carry out – you can only take small steps. You only achieve big things if you are able to move forward unencumbered.”

He gets up and picks up a cigarette butt from the ground. “Look at this,” he holds up the butt in front of his face. “This is where, in my personal opinion, quality production begins. It’s always about attitude. If I see a cigarette butt lying around, even if it’s not mine, I’ll pick it up and throw it away. That’s where it all starts.” He gets up, and, still on bare feet, walks to the trash can. “If we act like this and treat nature with respect, everything will be fine.”

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