Latvia’s got personality: Sea-buckthorn entrepreneur Eduards Vilks

From pine needle tea to birch sap juice, Latvians glean a rich array of remedies from their forests, bogs and meadows. But the most promising natural tonic grows on bushes brought in from abroad, which clever locals are turning into an orange bonanza.

The elixir in question is sea buckthorn ('smiltsērkšķis' in Latvian). Originating from the chilly steppes of Mongolia and northern China, ancient Greek warriors referred to these sunny berries as “shiny horse,” since a handful could make a sickly animal perk up. More recently, scientists have learned they are packed with vitamins and minerals and can be used to treat heart disease, asthma and many other conditions. Research even suggests it could be integrated into cancer treatment.

Thanks to a favorable climate and excellent locally-developed strains, Latvia is an ideal location for planting sea buckthorn. One of the most passionate growers is Eduards Vilks, who together with spouse Elīna Cēsniece runs “Zeltlejas” farm near Jelgava.

“The more we work with sea buckthorn, the more we are aware of what a positive thing it is,” says Eduards. “It is a wonderful way to improve your health and wellbeing.”

Eduards comes from an agricultural background in Kroņauce, the heart of the Zemgale breadbasket. His curiosity was stirred after reading an article about sea buckthorn, and in 2016 the couple planted their first garden of it. They have subsequently expanded their stands to 36 hectares and have been harvesting for the last two years (it takes four years for bushes to mature.)

'Zelt' sea buckthorn products

Only a single variety of sea buckthorn called “Tatjana” is grown at Zeltlejas. Tatjana was bred by Latvian biologist Andrejs Brūvelis, and its distinctive dark orange berries have a very high content of highly-prized oil. This oil is extracted at Zeltlejas then integrated into a variety of foods, beverages and cosmetics by production partners, which are then marketed under the brand “Zelt.” They are sold on the firm’s online store and at around 50 retail stores in Latvia. Summer tourists popping in for educational walks and live music events also pick up items.

Kids love the sea buckthorn marshmallows and caramels, while grown-ups happily sip the juices and beer. And sea buckthorn is a staple part of the menu for Eduards’ own family.

“Especially in the colder months we start the day with a shot of sea buckthorn juice to boost our immune system,” he says. “It’s not some wonder drug, but people who use it regularly have fewer colds and viruses and generally get sick much less often.”

Although picking from the thorny branches of sea buckthorn bushes is hard work, every August over one hundred seasonal workers from around Jelgava descend on the property. Those with a knack for the job can earn 50 euros a day, good money for low-skilled labor in Latvia.

The farm has a zero-waste goal and almost every part of the plant is used. The pulp obtained from pressing juice and oil is ground up to make sea buckthorn powder, while the leaves are turned into tea. Eduards reveals that research is underway to make use of the dried branches, which are rich in the “happiness hormone” serotonin.

Sea buckthorn growing at Eduards Vilks' farm near Jelgava

According to Eduards, sea buckthorn even has potential for replacing chemicals in the leathermaking industry. About 80 hectares of new sea buckthorn bushes are planted in Latvia every year, as producers struggle to keep up with high demand for Latvian berries from Germany, France and Scandinavia.

“The applications are virtually infinite and the potential for this industry is enormous,” says Eduards.

Unfortunately, there is one dark cloud in this hopeful sky. Several years ago, the family invested a lot of its own money to get the property into shape to qualify for development loans. But the promised funding didn’t come through, leaving the enterprise with cashflow problems. Eduards says they are looking for an investor to refinance them and to contact him if you know someone who might be interested in the buckthorn boom.

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