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Human Stories

How A Conventional Pig Farmer Went Organic | 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. It's “new” in the sense that this arable land has not been ploughed to death, 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 their 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 leave the soil to itself in the winter months and resist the temptation of the plough). 

Michael had a lot of learning to do when he set out to become an organic farmer, “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  

From Conventional Pig Farming to Organic Arable Production

This farm was very different just five years ago: Michael Reber, 49 years old, was a conventional pig farmer. After taking over from his parents, Michael increased the Hohenloher Landschwein 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 died 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 Schwäbisch Hall region. 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 run it in cooperation with the municipal utilities of Schwäbisch Hall. For this, he wanted to grow corn and grain. After a ten-day workshop about regenerative land cultivation, it became clear to Michael: “It’s time to give something back to the soil so that it can regenerate. It can’t be that agriculture only serves as a problem without also being part of the solution.” 

Impressed by the completely different regenerative farming approach, 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 says 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 of 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 that resulted in the weakening of soil biology in many places.   

If Michael had continued to conventionally farm, he would have faced the same problems, he says. Today, he relies on far fewer fertilisers, instead preserving nutrients in the soil through planting catch crops. 

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. And the soil gets sick as soon as one factor is wrong, then the fungicides come out and, after that, it’s the insecticides, and so on.” But shifting to an ecosystem approach by integrating a wide range of different crops, he has been able to move away from this vicious cycle.

While we’re returning 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 ran off or stagnated in the field.” 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 very young trees. And while I ask him about the how and why, a smile begins to light up his face. This meadow is his most recent project: agroforestry based on crowdfunding. The fruit tree meadows have traditionally shaped the region's landscape but have become less common with time. “We had the money for planting the trees in three days; I would never have guessed it”, Micheal tells me, still 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 sell. “We have to think a little more about that,” he says.  

Harvesting With The Family

Michael shows me one of the old pigsties on his farm, where golden yellow corn is now drying. “This here is our first family project we’re doing together”, Michael says proudly. Michael purchases organic seeds from a start-up, and he'll save seeds from the harvest to plant again next spring. 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 working with highly toxic materials. 

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 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 visit of our tour is the “seminar room”, also an old pigsty. This is another project close to Micheal’s heart that he has worked 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 revenue stream. I want to know if these seminars are well attended, and Michael nods. “Over half of our participants are under 30 years old”, is what he tells me, and he absolutely wants to give them another perspective. “They learn nothing or way too little about alternative land cultivation 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.

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