Tillmans’ elderflower saft is one of our favorites from the Sweden Box. It’s sweet, floral, and incredibly versatile syrup, and it’s a delicious addition for a summer drink. The story of Tillmans is just as fascinating as the syrup itself. Here, Tomas Tillman tells us about how it all got started – from his beginnings as a lousy soccer player to upholding his family’s tradition of organic farming.
What sparked your interest in farming?
My father had a berry farm when I was growing up. He started growing blackcurrants and sold them to different factories. He did this for 10 to 12 years, and when I got a little older, around 18 or 20, I joined him in the berry farming business. I used to say I was such a lousy soccer player that this is where my juice mixing started! I had to sit on the bench and make juice for everyone!
Why did you start your own?
Around 1990 the Swedish industry started importing many berries from Poland and Estonia. The imported berries had lower prices so we had a hard time selling Swedish black currants. I asked my father if he would like to join me in a new business—a juice business—but he said, “no, no, no, we have enough work with the berries.” So he continued with the berries and I started Tillmans.
Now, my wife and oldest son work here so it’s fun. I have three boys, so we will see what the rest of them want to do in the future. Hopefully we will grow a little more as a company so we can provide them all with some kind of work
What was your first year of business like?
The first year, I remember thinking that there are so many blackcurrants so I was never going to be able to use everything that we harvest! But the year went along and we developed different plants: strawberries, elderflowers, and the fruits that nature here provides us with.
What kind of products did you start making first?
From the very start it was the saft, so the jam came into the picture maybe two years later. It took about two years to set up a small factory so we could start producing, and since then it has increased every year, and now it’s increasing very much every year. I think you have the same kind of market developing in the US with the organic foods.
We do! In fact, your farm is KRAV certified. What is that exactly?
Yes, KRAV is the control organization for organic. It’s not the only one but they have added some rules to their certification. There’s even a chapter of human rights included in the KRAV certification.
It’s certainly difficult to maintain an organic farm and the KRAV certification. Why’s this important to you?
Yes, you have to develop a different kind of production system. And we have worked for years in the fields growing blackcurrants and berries, so we have been developing these systems for 30 years and we are still learning. We are constantly developing new methods, and, most of all, efficient methods. In Sweden, labor costs are a big part of the production, so we have to focus on the efficiency, too.
We want our children to inherit these fields so they can continue farming in the same fields as we do, and as all our ancestors did. We have a lot of stories from nearby companies about how they grew potatoes in the same field with conventional methods for 30 to 40 years, and after this, it’s not possible to grow anything in these fields because they are full of pesticides! So it’s very important for us to maintain organic certification.
What’s your typical work day look like?
You wouldn’t want to know! I always say it’s impossible for me to get a fair trade mark because it’s not fair that I must work around 16 hours per day! A typical day, especially in the summertime, starts with bringing in the fruits from the fields and starting the pressing process. This is done continuously every day, so we press the fruits and cool the juice on day one. On day two, we start the filtration process and filter the juice. On day three we fill the bottles. So we press every day, cool every day, and fill every day.
We have around 12 employees, so I have to spend more and more time in the office. Last week, we just started production in a new factory that we have been building for two years! It’s really nice to develop the process.
When I started with my brother, we filled every single bottle by hand and closed it with a manual machine. We managed to produce around 700 bottles in a whole day, but were totally exhausted when we got home and ached everywhere. Now we fill around 5,000 bottles per hour almost 100% automatically.