MIROSŁAW ANGIELCZYK: HERBAL SUCCESS IN PODLASIE

Mirosław Angielczyk is an example of fulfilment of the American dream – from a punter to a millionaire, but in the Polish version. The businessman from Koryciny, Poland is a living proof that dreams do come true if the faith in them is strong enough and there is no lack of determination to make them come true. He started as the youngest companion on his grandmother’s and her friends’ expeditions in search of herbs. During his studies, he maniacally visited Warsaw shops just to smell the aroma of dried plants. After such an introduction, the choice of his life path was obvious.

Mr Mirosław, where exactly are we: on an agrotourism farm, in a botanical garden or at the Dary Natury company headquarters?

Generally speaking, on the premises of The Herbal Corner (Ziołowy Zakątek) company. The whole enterprise is already too big to talk only about agrotourism – at the moment we have about one hundred and twenty accommodation places and a dozen or so rooms. There is also a botanical garden and a production plant, each of them branches of the same enterprise, which are intertwined. One results from the other and can actually support each other.

The beginnings of the company date back to 1990. Could you tell us where it all started?

Just like everyone else, after graduating from university I was faced with a life choice. I wondered what job I should choose and where I should look for it. Because of my agricultural education, I was offered positions in agricultural cooperatives and management positions in large farms. But I refused, sensing that this was not for me. Throughout my studies, while in Warsaw, I explored herbal knowledge as a hobby with absolutely no thought of becoming a professional.

You talk about a period of study, but wasn’t it actually the case that you were interested in herbalism as a child?

It’s true, it all started in my childhood. I was 7, maybe 8 years old when I collected my first herbs with my grandmother and her friends. At the time, this was a way of life in the countryside, although neither my brothers nor my friends were into it, but I loved it from the start and soaked up the atmosphere during the harvest. I remember that a large part of the money I earned at that time was used to buy books, which I used to deepen my knowledge of herbal medicine. Later on, this knowledge led to my life. After the agricultural technical school in the provinces, I had rather poor chances of getting into university, but thanks to my interest in nature and the information I had, I won the agricultural knowledge contest and entered university without exams. During my studies, I went to herbal shops in Warsaw to smell the herbs. In this way, I met the owners of two or three shops, I saw what they lacked, and since at that time there was a huge shortage of goods, because Herbapol from Białystok was doing worse and worse, I thought that since I know what I’m doing, and I feel strong in it, I’ll just give it a try.

Weren’t you afraid of failure?

Of course I was afraid, but back then it was a completely different time, you could start something from scratch without any money, now it’s probably impossible. Besides, my studies gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve something. Thanks to the familiarity with a large city, I had no problems with the formalities I had to deal with at the Ministry of Health and various offices.

So let us recap: you finish your studies, you return to Koryciny and you know that herbs are in demand. Are these sufficient reasons to set up a business?

Initially, I collected herbs myself, but I soon realised that I would not be able to gather such quantities on my own. At that time, there were collectors on the market, but they mainly worked for Herbapol, for which I was a competitor, and – unfortunately – there were also unpleasant incidents, including me being inspected or people being told that I was cheating them. Collectors are usually older people who want to talk and complain, and I always had time for them, which quickly won them over. These relationships gave me great benefit in the form of knowledge about the use of particular herbs in ancient times. I gained this knowledge through long stories, and I still use this knowledge today. In this natural way, I had more and more collectors every year.

And business started to flourish…

Yes, although it wasn’t rosy at first, for about six months I didn’t even have a car, I packed my herbs in two bags and a backpack and took a bus to Warsaw. Only later my wife gave me her little car, from which I removed the back seat and made a delivery truck. The orders came from several shops, so in order to fulfil them, I quickly collected herbs or used the stocks I had, dried them and delivered them to the recipients within a week of harvest. I made the packaging myself from an ordinary sheet of A4 paper: I glued it together, drew the outline of the plant with a marker, signed it and sold it. In those days, it was possible to sell goods packaged in this way; today it probably seems ridiculous.

I would disagree with you. Nowadays, all the goods in shops are pretty and have colourful packaging, but this makes them almost identical. Such original packaging would certainly make it stand out on the shelf in a sea of different packaging.

Perhaps you are right. I remember when I had two or three bags of some herb, I used to worry: “God, when am I going to sell this?” I thought it was a lot, after all I could carry 20, maybe 30 kg in one delivery, but it allowed me to earn a living.

Did you often take these bags to Warsaw?

At first I made one trip a week to friendly shops, later two trips. I was selling more and more and I had problems with finding out how much I really needed to meet the orders.

When did you feel that this one-man operation could grow into a real and successful business?

I believed in it from the very beginning. The basis was the enthusiasm I had for my work at the time. To be honest, today I wish I had it again. There was no force that could dissuade me from this idea. I consider one of the successes of that time to be the fact that I resisted all persuasions to take up normal work instead of collecting herbs.

Sometimes it would be better if those giving so-called good advice simply said nothing…

In my case, all those voices of contradiction motivated me, I stammered to myself and said that it had to work. My mother kept quietly watching what I was doing, my father tried to discourage me and urged me to become a clerk. But after a year, when he saw that I was doing well, he offered to help me build a warehouse so that I would have somewhere to keep my treasures. My mother advised me to build the building just behind the barn, but I wanted to build it near the forest, because I simply dreamt it. Today, this hall houses a production plant. Looking at the shape the company is currently in, it would be hard to find a better location. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise that my parents helped me from the very beginning, for example with the grinding of herbs, so that I could quickly fulfil my orders.

For how long was the strength of your own hands and the help of your loved ones enough?

As far as I remember, after a year in business, I decided that we could no longer manage alone. The warehouse wasn’t ready yet and I didn’t have anywhere to put my employees, so I distributed shredded herbs and packaging around the houses and people did the work on a home basis. At first it must have been eight people – neighbours and family. Once the building was up, some of them started working in it, and some of them continued to do their work at home.

Then you started growing herbs. When did you realise that there were not enough herbs in the forests and meadows to meet the demand?

It was a result of market demand. When one of my customers told me that he needed specific herbs from cultivation, we started to either buy these herbs from farmers or cultivate them ourselves. It seems that after the first three years we were already delivering herbs to several cities: Warsaw, Radom and Lublin. Generally speaking, more and more herbs are being brought into cultivation because it is necessary, but still several dozen species are being collected from the natural environment.

Aren’t you afraid that one day there will be no more people who know anything about herbs and there will be no one to collect them? The old are leaving and the young are probably not keen on the job.

The village structure is changing. Fifteen years ago, I actually thought that there would soon be a problem with gathering. Today, as farmers are unable to cope financially, they make a living by collecting herbs, even though they would never have imagined that they would have to do so. However, the fact is that these people need to be educated, because apparently collecting is not complicated, but for someone who has no idea about it, it is not. With proper training, there will certainly be no shortage of collectors in the coming years.

So you invest in staff, whether they are your employees or not?

Exactly. This year in September we did a training course for herb collectors, it was very popular.

I read somewhere that you have a group of collectors of protected plants….

The collection of these plants is subject to different rules, because it is strictly regulated. We are given permission to collect a certain amount. Usually, this work is carried out either directly by our employees or by selected collectors. They receive information on how many plants of a particular species they can collect and in which place.

You started with a company which dealt with the purchase and sale of herbs, and today it operates under the Dary Natury brand. What is the core of your business?

Dary Natury, because it is the part of the business that financially supports the whole company. Despite constant development, the whole thing is still a non-profit branch, and the main cost-creating part is the botanic garden, for which we do not receive any subsidies or grants, but we have to maintain eight people working in it. For a year and a half it has been the only botanic garden on the eastern wall. I think, however, that from next year we will be forced to introduce even symbolic tickets, so over the winter we will improve plant descriptions, make new collections, so that people who are not necessarily interested in plants in the medicinal sense can also find something interesting here.

What is the situation of the company today?

At the moment there are about eighty people on site. These are people who work in the farm, garden, kitchen and production. There are around two hundred pickers, who earn their living from early spring to late autumn. The whole farm covers more than 40 hectares, 15 of which are used for gardening – there is a production section where we grow herbs, most of which is wild rose (over 7.5 hectares).

Apart from herbs you have a wide range of other products…

Yes, but these are things related to herbalism, such as oils or teas.

Can we talk about a kind of trend for using herbs?

It has been around for a long time, but the trend for healthy eating is just beginning.

So perhaps the real boom, and thus the development of the company, is still ahead of you?

Not so much, if only because the competition does not sleep. However, due to the fact that in this area there is a wide choice of herbs and we always use the best ones in production, anything is possible.

That is the point. I have the impression that your advantage also lies in the fact that you do not grow or sell the most popular herbs…

We are constantly trying to produce what is not on the market, and even if we produce a product that already exists, we do our best to make it more original, using rarer ingredients, for example.

Real business is about constant challenges and not resting on one’s laurels, so I cannot leave out the question about future plans. What do they involve?

At the moment, I’m thinking about launching a line of herbs for animals and liquid alcohol seasonings. A lot of people make liqueurs and try to flavour white alcohol to make it taste better, so I’ve come up with a product that you can add to vodka and after waiting a few days it will make cognac, for example. We also recently tried to recreate some very old recipes using acorns, which are very nutritious. Few people know that they used to save people from starvation. Apart from coffee, they can be used to make a great many products. We will soon start producing acorn flour, which has already been tested and we are only waiting for the certificate. I also plan to open an old-style farm with buildings and animals so that people who come here, especially children, can participate in farm work.

Considering all your professional activities, is there anything you are particularly proud of? I am personally intrigued by the grass that can be found in one of the more popular alcohols associated with Podlasie. Is there a chance that it comes from your cultivation?

There is always a chance (laughs). I am really proud of my Żubrówka grass. I collected it already as a child, I was very interested in it then, I quickly learned to recognize it even from a distance of several meters. There was a collection point in our village, and I remember that the leading collectors used to take it there on a cart, just like hay.

At the moment, to find this grass, you have to go a long way and, above all, know where to look for it, because for 40 years the species has been depleted, but not only by collectors. For a long time people tried to plant it in gardens, but these attempts failed, because bison simply needs specific conditions. A plantation can be maintained for 3-4 years in one place, after which it must be moved. As this subject interested me very much, I was doing various experiments myself, then I was joined by the staff of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW), and together we worked out the environmental conditions that this grass must have in order to be identical to that in the forest. It is not that difficult, but it takes time. It was an interesting scientific experience for me, however, from the business point of view this cultivation is not profitable at the moment and will remain so until people respect the law and refrain from harvesting bison grass, which is under protection.

Dary Natury is a family business. So, I would like to ask, what will its future look like? Will the children continue the business started over 20 years ago?

It is difficult to say. Like any parent, I hope so, of course. My children help me a lot, they spend every free moment here. The eldest of my three daughters is studying medicine, which can be combined. The youngest daughter will, I hope, like me finish her studies in natural sciences and will be interested in them. In addition, we are going to strengthen the rural tourism field, which might be an easier business to continue.

Herbalism has always been a passion of mine, but I learned it working together with my grandmother. In the generation of my parents there was no one who was interested in it, only the second generation took over this interest, so maybe this will also be the case and only my grandchildren will be herbalists (laughs).

For now, the situation of the plant is stable and the products that were invented 20 years ago are still being manufactured and sold in increasing quantities, so I have reason to believe that this will continue to be the case in the future, if, of course, their quality continues to be at such a high level. With this in mind, I believe that even if herbalism is not a great passion for someone, he or she will easily be able to continue the business I started.

You are a reflection of the American dream – from a punter to a millionaire. You have shown that passion combined with determination is the best recipe for success.

I have a feeling that people are afraid of risk, challenges, the fact that they will fail, and someone will laugh at them. To this day I meet many of my friends from my youth and they often say that they would do something, they have such and such an idea, but there are always obstacles in the way. And if you don’t try, it’s difficult to achieve anything.

Interviewed by: Daniel Parol. Article available at: https://krainabugu.pl/zielarski-sukces-po-podlasku/

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