15 years of “BioKräuterei Oberhavel” – a successful model

Interview with Traudel and Matthias Anders

Current Concerns: You and your wife are the founders of the “BioKräuterei Oberhavel”. How do two teachers, already fully occupied with their jobs, manage to set up and maintain a functioning farm?
Matthias and Traudel Anders
: In 2006 we founded the BioKräuterei with a not so clearly outlined idea. As teachers in the vocational school sector, we saw many trainees who were placed in a so-called state-supported measure as part of the dual training instead of in a farm and were treated as second-class trainees. The products of this measure did not have to stand up to the customers and the level of requirements was at the lower level. This increased discouragement for many trainees, and we wanted to support young people with a training facility in “real time mode”.
  In addition, we often found the situation in the education system unsatisfactory, as many bureaucratic measures distracted from what was actually happening in education. We found building a meaningful alternative rather relieving.
  At the same time, we saw that there were hardly any small farms in Brandenburg. Large-scale industrial agriculture had clearly taken over and still does. Since we had little capital available and did not want to get into debt, we decided to start with high-quality organic herb cultivation.

Today you are more than just a single farm. How is the organic herb farm structured, how big is it, how many employees do you have? What kind of organisation is necessary?
In 2006 we bought two hectares of land and registered the farm as a sole proprietorship. In the meantime, we cultivate seven hectares and employ five gardeners, two trainees and three part-time workers. In 2012, we founded a cooperative, the “BioAnbau Oberhavel eG”. With the cooperative capital, we were able to build two greenhouses to cherish our own young plants. The BioKräuterei rents the greenhouses from the cooperative, which has 100 members by now. The establishment of a farm was and is also a prerequisite for being allowed to fence in arable land, drill wells and erect smaller buildings and construction trailers. Relatively soon we were asked to show a profit for tax purposes in order not to lose our classification as an agricultural enterprise. With the help of initially many voluntary helpers and a production and marketing strategy tailored to each other, it was possible for the farm to slowly become self-supporting and for more employees to be taken on.

You have the word “organic” in your name, moreover you work according to the methods of “regenerative agriculture”. What do you mean by this and where does it come from?
From the beginning, we joined an organic farming association of smaller farms in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The few small farms that exist in Brandenburg are mostly organically certified farms. At the same time, we have become certified organic according to EU guidelines. After the heavy rain disaster of 2017, we intensively looked into regenerative agriculture, as our soils suffered a lot from the floods. For up to half a year, the soils were under a 20 to 30 cm layer of water, which meant that the entire soil life, including earthworms, was severely damaged. Soil damaged in this way is unable to provide sufficient nutrients for crops to grow.
  With organic farming, which we have practised since the foundation of the farm, we have cultivated a high level of biodiversity and have not used mineral fertilisers and synthetic chemical pesticides. We have approached the humus build-up of the poor Brandenburg soil with green manure, compost applications and other approved organic fertilisers. The heavy rainfall event in 2017 (300 litres of rain per square metre in 24 hours) showed us two things: on the one hand, the structure of the soil was severely damaged by the “water roller”; on the other hand, this damage was significantly less in the densely vegetated green manure areas. But it also showed us that we had not managed to build up the soil optimally with the previous cultivation method. This referred not only to its ability to let water through, but also to weed pressure, soil structure and more.

At that time, you started regenerative agriculture. Can you briefly explain what the layperson must imagine by this?
Regenerative agriculture is a method of cultivation that has come to Europe mainly from Anglo-Saxon agriculture (W. Albrecht, N. Kinsey, C. Jones, E.R. Ingham and others).
  Europe, although it also had forerunners here (A. Thaer, A. Petersen, E. Henning and others). Dietmar Näser, Friedrich Wenz and Ingrid Hörner were responsible for its dissemination and further development here.
  In 2016, we met Dietmar Näser during a training course on regenerative agriculture at an organic farm field day. Regenerative agriculture focuses above all on soil life and soil structure, i.e. exactly what was clearly damaged in our area after the heavy rain disaster. In these respects, regenerative agriculture goes beyond “normal” organic farming, although organic farming also has its beginnings. The consistent involvement of soil life and the inclusion of the interaction between plant roots and their microbial partners in the soil are the hallmarks of regenerative agriculture and at the same time show its potential. In order to successfully feed a plant, the soil life is specifically activated, which in turn feeds the plant. The soil is thus not an empty vessel into which is “fertilised” what the plant extracts according to the nutrient analysis. Over-fertilisation and plant diseases can thus be avoided, a better humus layer can be built up and the water-holding capacity can be increased. The build-up of humus is always accompanied by the binding of CO2 in the soil. In addition, the content of health-promoting minerals and other secondary plant substances in the plant is increased.
  In 2018, we had an exceptional harvest after the first application of this approach. The dry summers in subsequent years present us with further challenges, and we are glad that we have been able to improve the soil conditions.

How does this differ from the traditional treatment and cultivation of the soil with fertilisers, as developed by the German chemist Justus von Liebig?
Fertilisation according to Liebig only considers the mineral nutrient conditions in the soil (“law of the minimum”), i.e., the missing nutrients are added. The consideration of soil life plays no role. In the long term, however, this unfortunately leads in many cases (see above) to the degradation of the humus layer and increases the susceptibility of the plants to pests.

How do you distribute your products?
In nearby Berlin, we first offered our products – herbs, wild herbs, edible flowers – to interested market visitors at three Berlin weekly markets. The market customers still appreciate our expanded range of products. The initial supply to organic wholesalers did not add enough value; given our high biodiversity of 140 crops, wholesalers were not a suitable partner. We then expanded the supply to individual organic shops, organic chains and the upmarket gastronomy. This was successful, but was also always associated with an indeterminate purchase volume and required a logistical effort. Therefore, in 2015 we decided to start with a CSA (community supported agriculture), also called SOLAWI (solidarity agriculture) or “contract farming”. In the beginning, we delivered to 65 buyers (shares), today to 210 buyers (shares). Together with the supply to the markets, this forms the distribution of our products.

What is meant by “solidarity” in your understanding? In which ideological tradition do you see yourself with this term? Do you see yourself as part of the green organic movement?
The idea of the marketing method known in Germany as “solidarity agriculture” goes back to a Japanese initiative in the 1960s. Concerned mothers no longer wanted their children to eat conventional, contaminated food. They made an agreement with a farmer who they guaranteed to buy all his produce, on one condition: He was not allowed to use synthetic pesticides. The first “Teikei” (meaning partnership-cooperation) was thus born. Around the same time, similar initiatives developed in Europe. In 1978, the cooperative “Les Jardins de Cocagne” in Geneva was founded according to the same principle and called itself “contract farming”. In 1985, the idea reached the USA and Canada as well as the UK, where it became known as “community supported agriculture” (CSA). In France, AMAP (associations pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne) was founded with the same aim.
  The farms and institutions are not uniform; there are cooperatives, associations, family businesses, sole proprietorships and civil law partnerships. But fundamental to all of them is the connection between producers, growers and consumers. The consumers are “in solidarity” with the producers, the harvest is shared, i.e., surpluses are distributed, but also the consequences of a failed harvest are borne by the consumers. It is not a question of a specific form of organisation, but rather of consumers “moving closer” to the food produced in their environment or region, experiencing the effects of the weather more closely, and thus learning to value their food more again.
  After the storms of 2017, we had a bad harvest and the CSA/SOLAWI, our cooperative and friends helped us a lot.
  The planning and production for a group of participants that is already determined before the season is precise, and it also prevents a surplus economy, which unfortunately can be found again and again in agriculture.
  The BioKräuterei is part of a “movement” in that it pursues a common concern with many people and businesses around the world: to produce healthy food for people’s nutrition in an environmentally friendly way through resource-conserving cultivation.

The BioKräuterei works entirely without pesticides and without synthetic chemical fertilisation. In your opinion and experience, could larger farms also work with the method of “regenerative agriculture”? Is this not something that can only work on small farms like yours?
We do not use pesticides and “chemicals” as the terms are commonly understood; our approach is to strengthen the soil and plants so that they are not attacked by insect pests, for example, or, if they are attacked, they can fight them off. Plant diseases and insect infestations are always an indicator that there is a deficiency or surplus of, for example, nitrate in the soil. For example, we have been able to successfully control potato beetles with a clay meal solution. However, as in medicine, it is not always just one agent, the causative agent or the remedy, but a number of factors must always be taken into account to achieve plant health. For example, the condition of the soil in question, i.e. the region, the location, the history of the soil and/or the weather and thus the climate must be taken into account.
  Many larger farms are turning to regenerative agriculture, especially after the last dry summer years. We have met farms with up to 5,000 hectares in seminars. Soil fatigue can no longer be stopped by conventional methods of fertilisation, and the increasing development of resistance to pesticides and herbicides is also forcing many farmers to rethink. Fundamentally, however, it is questionable whether the problems can be brought under control by large-scale monoculture farming. The World Agricultural Report of 2009 shows – with reference to Swiss structures, by the way – that small-scale agriculture produces more productively, healthier and, above all, more sustainably than monoculture and large-scale plantation farming. This makes small-scale agriculture ground-breaking for the world food situation.

So, would your model also be a model for how society as a whole could eventually manage without “chemicals”?
A high level of biodiversity, the development of humus-rich soils, the avoidance of surplus farming and monocultures, and the production of nutrient-rich food can make the use of pesticides, as they are commonly understood, superfluous. Incidentally, this is also what the renowned Swiss FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) reports in its media release of 2 July 2019: “Rapid success in reducing pesticide pollution is possible. However, a future without pesticide pollution needs other, costly but feasible solutions in the agroecosystem.” Today’s techniques allow “not only organic farming to improve its practices today, but also to envisage the whole of Swiss agriculture going without herbicides by 2025.” •

Weeds are often bioindicators (indicator plants), they give clues about the condition of the soil: about soil compaction, about soil life, also about the lack of certain minerals. For example, we succeeded in driving out a tenacious weed (couch grass) through soil revitalisation measures and the addition of molasses (sugar) – it has sweet-tasting, i.e., sugar-containing roots (!) – previously we had tried this for ten years in vain with mechanical measures.

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