On a late, sunny afternoon in Zofingen, Switzerland, the atmosphere at the country’s biggest organic fair, Bio Marché, is buzzing with excitement. The cooling units operate at full speed, as organic milk in particular needs cooling. Snippets of conversations in German, English, Italian and French merge together while visitors and exhibitors have sales talks. In the shade of centuries-old trees, you can listen to gentle guitar sounds, savor fresh organic produce and enjoy the splashing fountains.
Zofingen, about one hour drive west from Zurich, is a small town surrounded by Switzerland’s green, hilly countryside. The city’s historic center charms with tiny, old houses, cobblestone pavement and old monuments with detailed golden ornaments.
Organic bars and healthy nutrition
“If you are skiing in the Swiss Alps, look out for our little mascot, the Yogi,” says Siddhi Mehta, smiling and waving goodbye to a customer. It’s Saturday, June 21, and the young, Indian-born woman goes back behind her stall at Bio Marché.
Just like almost every other exhibitor, she proceeds to offer little bites of her organic power bars to passing visitors, who slowly stroll through the historic center of Zofingen, where the three-day fair is taking place for the 15th time. The pieces of Mehta’s organic power bars look delightful and ready to be eaten.
Mehta regards Switzerland’s biggest organic fair as a great opportunity for her to promote her power bars to an interested public. “Bio Marché is the best organic fair in Switzerland. Anybody who cares about organic and sustainable products comes here,” she says. “Most stalls offer rather traditional products. But I don’t see them as competition.”
Before starting her business, Rhythm 108, Mehta worked as a consultant, which allowed her to travel extensively but left her with no time to eat healthy food, so she resorted mainly to processed products. “Because of the healthy marketing, I thought I was eating healthy. But in fact I was eating a lot of sugar that actually made me sick.” She then quit her job and decided to create healthy products for people who travel and work a lot.
Rhythm 108’s mascot is the Yogi, which originates from a pose in yoga that focuses on balance. “Just like my products, which aim for a natural balance as well,” she adds.
She proudly points to one of her colorful fliers. “My products balance nutrition. For example, we use whole apples instead of apple juice. We also use amaranth, which is high in calcium, protein and iron, which means that there is a better quality of protein in the bars as opposed to other bars that use soy protein isolate.” The latter is gained through an aggressive process, but she says she doesn’t need to extract protein because it’s already in the ingredients that she uses.
After launching her power bars in November 2013, Mehta is now working on new flavors, including ginger bread and cookie dough, as well as a vegan biscuit version. All of her products are certified by Intertech, a German laboratory, and by Bio Marché inspectors.
Although her startup company is quite new to the market, her organic power bars are already available online, at Müller Reformhaus in Switzerland and Egli, another Swiss organic supermarket.
“The organic community is longing for new products, and the best thing is, the people here are already so well informed!” she says. “In other countries, I’d have to explain what kind of sugar substitutes I use and where the differences are. Here, most customers already know.”
Building an organic brand
Trained chef Thomas Saurer is another one of the 190 exhibitors at Bio Marché, where he presents his organic produce. His business, Biomilk, is a small company that employs 10 workers. It was founded in 1989 by Demeter farms in and around Bern, Switzerland, after the Demeter farmers decided they wanted to produce yogurt that met Demeter standards, which involve a holistic understanding of agricultural and biodynamic processes.
Saurer shares Mehta’s impression. “The organic scene has skipped one generation,” he says. “First, there were the hippies. Then there were their children, who wanted to distance themselves from their parents and from organic culture. And now their children discover once again the advantages of organic produce.”
Biomilk produces organic yogurt for Coop Naturaplan and Manor, two Swiss supermarket chains, and for various certified organic shops. Its organic yogurt won the Bio Gourmet prize in 2013, which recognizes organic products from both a qualitative and a visually appealing standard.
“You’ll find only milk, sugar and fruit in our products,” Saurer says. Biomilk has been exhibiting at Bio Marché for several years, and customers are now familiar with the company’s stall, located in the Demeter lane of the fair, every year.
Saurer would like Biomilk products to become more popular. “Due to the private labeling from the supermarket chains, only few people actually recognize the Biomilk brand behind the products sold at Coop or Manor,” he says. “And those who recognize Biomilk as a brand might be confused by the English term ‘milk’ in our name, because it can lead to the assumption that the product wasn’t produced locally.”
He adds that when Biomilk was founded 25 years ago, Anglicisms were trendy. “Today, everybody cries for regional references.”
As for the attendees at Bio Marché, Saurer sees them as a mixed group of people. “I’d say that half of the visitors are actually here because of the organic products, but the other half comes because of the atmosphere,” he says. “The latter group of people doesn’t normally enter an organic shop.”
An increasingly diverse Bio Marché
One might expect that an organic fair such as Bio Marché prefers to stick with a rather traditional presentation of organic food. However, a huge social program exists around the exhibitors offering organic products of all kinds. There are street musicians and jugglers. And in the middle of the city center, the organizers have built a petting zoo for the younger visitors.
In addition, almost 200 Swiss and foreign exhibitors offer not only organic food but also organic cosmetics, organic textiles, organic furniture and such services as organic hotel stays. Organic cashew nuts from India, fresh organic fruits from Ghana and organic coffee beans from Indonesia are tendered, just like the Swiss organic milk products or Italian organic olive oil.
According to Urs Hofmann, a senior civil servant at the canton of Aargau, Bio Marché has managed to dust off the image of an organic produce fair to make itself more attractive to a broader public. Since 2000, about 40,000 visitors pay a visit to the fair every year.
According to Daniel Bärtschi, CEO of Bio Suisse, one of the firms supporting the fair, “Bio Marché is a unique platform which turns sustainable agriculture and future authentic food production into a whole new experience.”
The exhibitors differ not only in the products they offer but also in their size. Both small and big companies are present. Thanks to the many orientation signs, the fair is very well organized. No matter which lane one goes to, the range of extraordinary organic products is huge. Italian exhibitors even have their own lane for presenting their goods. Besides Italian organic oil, they offer Italian organic pepperoni, parmigiano reggiano, wine and syrup from roses.
“I know they are double the price, but the taste of the African organic pineapples is simply better,” says a representative from one small company, Ghana’s WAD, Produits du Terroir Africain. “I myself relapsed a few times and bought conventionally processed pineapples at Migros supermarket, but I had to throw them away because I didn’t like their taste any longer.”
Supermarket chain Migros is the main sponsor of Bio Marché. It is strategically located in the city center, right on the church square. Migros has the biggest pavilions, scores of staff and display areas. One might therefore ask if the whole fair is not a huge marketing event for Migros, which recognized organic products’ potential and decided to follow the trend.
“As the increasing growth figures show, organic agriculture has gained a lot of trust within the past years,” says Manfred Bötsch, head of sustainability management at Migros.
Migros offers more than a thousand organic products. “Nature knows what’s best,” says Renato Isella, project manager at Migros. “At Bio Marché, we demonstrate the variety of our organic products.”
As the sun sets on this warm Saturday evening, the atmosphere at the fair grows increasingly cheerful, and visitors continue to enjoy their free samples and the degustation.
“Planning for the exhibition at Bio Marché since January has been worth it,” Mehta says. “My customers are satisfied, and even the weather is great.”