Soil erosion and humus loss are major problems worldwide. Intensive cultivation is robbing agricultural land of its humus content, which reduces its fertility. Soil on land farmed under organic principles is also losing nutrients, as measures for humus conservation and long-term accumulation are costly and time-consuming. This is where a joint programme of Bio-Stiftung Schweiz (Organic Foundation Switzerland) and myclimate comes in, which supports measures to promote humus with advice, dialogue and funding under the banner of “Fertile soil as a natural CO2 sink”. The pilot programme, which was launched in 2018, was scheduled to run for around seven years.
We are closely supporting this programme, like all myclimate climate protection projects, to address the status quo as well as the successes and challenges of project activities. This year, our colleagues visited two German operations.
Our first destination is a Demeter farm in the state of Baden-Württemberg, in south-western Germany. To reach Steffen Hofmann’s farm, we first travel to Heilbronn. From there it is about 60 km to Hofmann’s family-run operation, which includes some 200 hectares of agricultural land and around 100 dairy cows, plus a few chickens. At the site we meet agricultural expert Dr Ulrich Hampl from Bio-Stiftung Schweiz, who visits all 29 participating farms twice a year.
Three generations of the Hofmann family live together on the farm, which has been managed under biodynamic principles since 1986. It is located in a region that is know for the cultivation and sale of “Grünkern”, or green spelt. This is spelt that is harvested before the maturation process is complete and dried over a wood fire. In this process, foodstuffs are dried with heat to make them more durable for storage. The resulting “Fränkischer Grünkern” is a protected speciality and a source of pride for the farm.
Today we are here to see how the farm puts the soil fertility programme into action. The programme takes a nature-based approach to climate protection and supports organic farms in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The aim is to increase the storage of carbon in the soil. Carbon comes from the air, which plants extract through photosynthesis and store in the soil through their roots and microorganisms. This is important not only for climate protection, but also for regional climate adaptation and soil fertility. Healthy soil is more resilient, even in extreme weather conditions such as heavy rainfall and periods of drought.
To increase the carbon content in the soil, you have to build up the humus content. There are many measures for achieving this. This programme is a blend of two measures:
More careful soil tillage with only superficial loosening of the soil without turning or mixing of the soil layers
Changes to crop rotation and/or introduction or upgrading of green fertiliser, catch crops or undersown crops
We start our visit with a walk through the fields. Agricultural expert Ulrich Hampl takes “spade samples” on some of the project areas. Soil condition can already tell you a lot about humus content and soil fertility. For 30 years the specialist has been carrying out this simple yet highly conclusive method. “I still don’t understand why tractors aren’t fitted with a bracket for a spade. That would enable a farmer to quickly and easily check the soil conditions at any time and make informed decisions about cultivation accordingly,” says Hampl. These regular, illustrative spade samples are supplemented by soil samples taken before and after the entire project duration. This acts as a plausibility check for the higher carbon content in the soil.
On just a few metres you can already see how different the soil is. In the fields we see where green fertiliser has been spread. In one field, mixed seeds of vetch, peas and sunflowers were sown. In the second field we are already talking about one of the challenges in the project and in agriculture generally. The farmer had sowed broad bean seeds. But because of poor weather, the seeds didn’t grow. Hofmann then decided to buy seeds again and also to apply mustard as a green fertiliser. And it worked! So this measure will be assessed as part of the project this year.
“Weather plays a decisive role. If it rains too much or too little, or if temperatures fluctuate too much, it can mean crop failure or a reduction in yield. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot,” explains Hofmann.
The second sowing was very important for the project goal. Each year, in consultation with the farmers, the number of hectares of land that can be considered in calculating the CO2 storage capacity is evaluated. So if the farmer has to use a plough for crop rotation or due to the nature of the soil, these areas cannot be included in the calculation for that year. Nevertheless, the farm will receive compensation if it has implemented the measures and it continues to meet the eligibility criteria. With the secured financing, Bio-Stiftung Schweiz and myclimate aim to free up participating farmers and minimise their risks.
After about two hours our first farm visit comes to a close. Just 40 km away, Walter Kress is already waiting for us at the Haaghof. He has been practising organic farming for 43 years and has already carried out numerous real-world experiments on his farm. As a mechanical engineer, Kress is a pioneer in the development of technology for organic farming, with the aim of reducing soil damage caused by agricultural machinery.
His primary motivation for participating in the programme is the dialogue with other farmers. Every year there are meetings for all participants where they discuss successes and challenges.
“What is crucial is that people get new input. It is only through dialogue that we can learn from each other and break new ground in agriculture,” says Kress. Among his objectives is the ongoing development of catch crops.
On his six hectares of land, he is constantly trying new and different farming methods and gaining valuable experience which he shares with other farmers. “Because my farm is small, I can afford to take more risks than a larger farm, where crop failure and poor yields cause far greater damage.” The Haaghof is a family farm. Over the years it has had to surrender more and more leased land. It couldn’t purchase new agricultural land around the farm – there was simply nothing available. So some time ago the family had to establish a second source of income.
We end our visit in the barn where Kress shows us his machines. They include rotary hoes and f9inger hoes developed in house which have become standard in agriculture today. “We developed the machines ourselves and sold them to farmers through our company Kress & Co,” says the innovative farmer.
The farm achieved all its project objectives this year. Back at the farmhouse, over coffee and cake we discuss developments as well as the extensive experience he has gained in over 30 years of organic farming.
At the end of the day we go back with numerous impressions and a lot more knowledge. These project visits have given us much to reflect on.
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