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How A Pig Farmer Became An Organic Farmer | Portrait in Germany

Until the end of 2019, 12.9% of all agricultural businesses in Germany had farmed their land according to the rules of organic farming. Michael Reber is a conventional farmer in the midst of transitioning, albeit not entirely voluntarily.

Catch Crops: More Life In The Soil 

It feels like walking on a trampoline: you sink and bounce a little at the same time. However, there’s no tightly stretched trampoline fabric underneath my feet, I’m standing on soil.

It’s February and I’m standing in the “new” field of farmer Michael Reber from Geilenkirchen near Schwäbisch Hall. “New” in the sense of: an arable land with an active soil culture that has not been plowed to death, chopped or fertilized or sprayed with insecticides and fungicides.

All around me I can see the difference: on the left, deep black furrows shine in the earth, on the right, a smooth and even green ground with sprouting winter wheat. In contrast, Michael’s field looks disorganised; last July he planted 18 different seeds in the soil. Catch crops such as radish which can break through soil compactions with its thick taproot, thus loosening it up. Linseed, sunflowers and green clover - all plants with roots that bind nutrients in the soil - ensure a fertile soil culture and, above all, the buildup of Humus. But, only if you manage to leave the soil to itself in the winter months and not plow through everything again. 

But Michael first had to learn that, “and this learning process doesn’t stop either”, he says with a smile. He trudges through his field with a spade and repeatedly checks the plant growth and the soil structure. Meanwhile, I can see how happy he is about the loose soil in the winter months even though his ground is made up of a hard mix of lime and clay - a common trait of German Keuper landscapes.2  

Transitioning From Pig Farming to Organic

But this was very different just five years ago: Michael Reber, 49 years old, was a classic pig farmer. His parents had already farmed Hohenloher Landschweine. Michael increased the numbers to 140 sows with piglets and female offspring. Business was good until a virus infected the animals in 2006 and around three quarters of the entire population collapsed within a year. This was the end of his pig breeding, an agriculture solely driven by profit, and Michael realized that he had to switch up his thinking while looking for an alternative. “During that time I actually started by looking left and right”, Michael says, “this included future oriented arable farming methods”.      

Hohenloher Schweine-Herdbuchzucht: The Hohenloher Landschwein is a breed that is particularly widespread in the region of Schwäbisch Hall. The breeding association manages the herd or breeding registry with certified proof of parentage.  

Eventually he and his wife decided to build a biogas plant and to run it in cooperation with the municipal utilities of Schwäbisch Hall. For this he wanted to grow corn and grain. After a 10 day workshop about regenerative cultivation of land it became clear to Michael: “It’s time to give something back to the soil so that it can regenerate”, as according to Michael, “it can’t be that agriculture only serves as a problem without also being part of the solution.” 

Impressed by the completely different approach to the regenerative cultivation of land he set to work: After some back and forth he found a good mixture to ‘feed’ the biogas plant: For three years he’s been planting 50% grain (rye, winter barley, triticale) as intercropping with legumes and 50% corn on his fields.4 He sows 10-15% of the nitrogen binding legumes, broad beans and peas with the grain. 

Legumes (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) are one of the species-rich plant families. They are part of the Fabales. Most legumes in their root tubercle enter a symbiosis with bacteria which fix nitrogen. As a result, they make themselves independent of the nitrate content of the soil and are only viable in extremely low-nitrogen soils. At the same time they can enrich the soil with nitrogen, which is why they are often grown in green manuring in agriculture.3  

 

Benefits Of Catch Crops

When Michael pulls one of the catch crops out of the field today, you can quickly see the effect: long roots that are thickly covered in loose soil. “Look, here we have a really young earthworm,” Michael is saying happily while pointing to a light yellow larva. As mundane as it may sound - about five to six years ago nothing would move on the field during the winter months, neither above nor below ground. To get such a lively soil, he registered with CarboCert and had soil samples tested for the second time in 2020. 

During the last three years cultivating his land using regenerative principles, he built up 0.1% of humus annually and managed to bind three tons of CO2 per hectare each year - this corresponds roughly with the CO2 emissions (per hectare and year) of a car travelling 20,000 km . This was a challenge, especially in the last three years as there were major dry periods, which resulted in the weakening of the soil biology in many places.   

If Michael had continued to conventionally farm, he would have faced the same problems, he says. Today he fertilizes the soil with significantly fewer chemical plant substances, instead he works trace nutrients into the soil, and instead of mineral nitrogen fertilization he sows various catch crops before the corn. It’s these catch crops he gives back to the soil now. They are planted in the field for 9 months over a period of two years after all.      

Michael explains that the  conventional agricultural system is basically designed for a chemical input: “First a lot of mineral fertilizer, afterwards the plant is on the drip like a drug addict. Then I always have to give. And she gets sick as soon as one factor is wrong, then the fungicides come up, after that, it’s the insecticides, and so on.” An endless cycle with detriments for the soil. Michael wanted to get away from that. 

While we’re on our way back to his farm Michael points to the wet and muddy path: During the last days it alternately rained and snowed. Michael tells me that “in most other areas the water just ran down or it just stood in the field.” The reason: much of the conventionally farmed land couldn’t absorb that much rainfall in such a short amount of time. His own farmland manages this and that’s what I feel with every step.  

Next Project: Agroforestry With Fruit Trees

Directly in front of Michael’s farm we pass by a fruit tree meadow where I notice the very young trees. And while I ask him about the how and why, a smile begins to light up his face. The two times 100m long meadow is his most recent project: agroforestry on the basis of crowdfunding. The fruit tree meadows have always shaped the landscape of the region but became less so with time. “We had the money for planting the trees in three days, I would never have guessed it”, Micheal tells me still a little bit incredulous. He got the idea from the Forum Moderne Landwirtschaft and promoted this agroforestry project publicly with his wife. This experience “was just awesome!” That’s why he’s planning his next project via crowdfunding again. He wants to farm wild fruit in two of his other areas: Cornelian Cherry, shadbush and a type of Russian fig - to pick yourself or later also to sell. “We have to think a little more about that,” he says.     

Harvesting With The Family

On his farm, Michael shows me one of the old pigsties. There, golden yellow corn cobs are drying. “This here is our first family project we’re doing together”, Michael says proudly. Michael purchases organic seeds from a start-up that he can use to bate his maize seeds in the spring himself. His children are doing that now, Michael grins happily, “all by themselves, and they have a lot of fun doing it”. Most importantly: He doesn't have to put them in protective full-body suits like he used to do when he was bating with highly toxic materials. 

The harvest is also a family project now, they’re doing it together: in the fall, the whole family spent a weekend in the field, picking corn cobs. “ This is where our children and grandparents get the kernel off the cob”, and Michael directly shows me how: either using a small, manually operated screwing machine, where most of the grains fall out, or by hand. Michael would like to develop a variety specifically adapted to his soil and location from the seeds he obtained four years ago. Instead of hybrid types that you cannot propagate yourself, he relies on a so-called line variety that you can simply propagate yourself each year. I want to know whether he could have imagined doing this 10 years ago. “No”, he says quickly like a shot. “I used to be completely convinced that conventional farming was the only right way. And I pervaded on my own.”

Regenerative Training Courses

The last station of our tour is the “seminar room”, also an old pigsty. Another project close to Micheal’s heart that he has been working on with his wife for two years. Everything he has learned through experimentation, careful observation, his own research and the workshop on regenerative cultivation of land, he and his wife now pass on to interested parties in soil seminars and field days. Even though the biogas plant is their main source of income, their classes developed into another source of income. I want to know if these seminars are well attended and Michael nods. “Over half of our participants are under 30 year olds”, is what he tells me and he absolutely wants to give them another perspective. “They learn nothing or way too little about the alternative cultivation of land during their training, it was the same for me”. That's why young people in particular look to social media channels, where they can find information on modern agriculture, says Michael. Agriculture that is adapted to the extreme weather conditions brought about by current climate change. “However, they also have to know what they really want as a farmer and as a person”, Michael emphasizes. This is a topic that Michael discusses with passion these days.    

In conclusion: He changed a lot, not only his way of farming but also himself. Michael laughs at that: “That’s what my wife tells me each week - at least once!”  

Do you know farmers who want to change from conventional to organic or ecological farming, or already did? We would be happy if you shared your experience with us in the link below. 

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