01. October 2019
Interview: Carbon Farming
Farmer Michael Reber on new methods and their economical value
By Laura von Ketteler
His colleagues considered a course on soil science for 2000 Euro to be crazy. However, to spend the same amount on additional bells and whistles on a tractor, is, in their eyes, normal. A rethink is necessary, says Carbon Farming Pioneer Michael Reber.
Farm & Food: Regenerative agriculture is still a rather new topic in Germany. Like the term sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture can be interpreted differently. What does the term mean to you?
Michael Reber: I have been operating carbon farming for five years according to the system of Dietmar Näser and Friedrich Wenz, adapted to our farm. For me, regenerative agriculture means the regeneration of the carbon balance, i.e. the binding of CO2 in the form of humus. But it also means the regeneration of nutrient contents that are reflected in the products. The binding of CO2 is very important.
Everybody is talking about sustainable agriculture, but sustainable agriculture can also be a bad thing. The difference in renewable agriculture is that we want to improve and not stay on the status quo. On our farm, we are now trying to make this visible with a CO2 certification concept. In 2020, we will carry out the first tests to measure the additional humus build-up in the soil since the first study in 2017. If all goes well, we will be able to sell CO2 certificates to companies.
Where does this approach actually come from and how far is knowledge about carbon farming spread in Germany?
The term comes from the USA and Australia. There are pioneers like Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown who have taken the subject to a new level. From Africa, we know Allan Savory, who developed the Holistic Management System. In Brazil, Ernst Götsch further developed the ideas of regenerative agriculture in what is known as syntropic agriculture. These are concepts based on the principles of regenerative agriculture. In Europe, the topic is only just beginning to grow, but I would say that Germany and Austria are the countries, that are furthest advanced on this road. The topic is slowly spreading among German farmers, mostly young farmers, through seminars and exchange among each other.
What prevents the farmer from implementing such ideas or even trying them out for the first time?
Farmers often lack the time and economic incentives to implement additional measures. First, it costs money to build up humus. However, many farmers no longer have that money and there is a lack of subsidies. Automation in stables and fields can create time, but this time has to be used for animal observation and soil analysis, for example. Most of the time, however, is used to enlarge the area. I think it is sometimes important to take a step back and do what you do right before you expand your farm. What is lacking most of all, however, is the necessary knowledge. Teaching institutions hardly mention the topic of humus development or regenerative agriculture, not even in organic farming.
What motivated you to take a new path?
13 years ago, we had an economically painful experience with a disease in the stable. Then the pig market changed drastically and it was time to rethink. In 2009, we built the biogas plant that was the rescue for the farm. Now the company is concentrating on 200 hectares of arable land for the biogas plant. Here we have heavy clay soils with 30 to 45 soil points and a high magnesium content, which makes the soils difficult to cultivate. Therefore, the most important thing is the cultivation of the soil. After I attended the soil course, a lot has changed in my way of thinking. I was shocked at how little I had heard about the whole thing before.
Do you see issues like digitisation as an important part of sustainable agriculture?
I am not quite as optimistic about this as many others; there are some useful implementations such as the GPS-controlled section control for crop protection sprayers or fertilizer spreaders. Digitisation is basically positive, but it also usually promotes structural change. On a farm like ours with 200 ha few of these solutions are really economically useful. When I did the soil course for 2000 Euros, everyone thought I was crazy. However, to spend the same amount for additional bells and whistles, e.g. on the tractor, is quite normal. Here we have to rethink.
What I really use a lot is communication media. Social media channels are being used more and more among farmers to gain new knowledge, learn from innovations and find out about events. Personally, I mostly use Instagram and WhatsApp groups for sharing.
Where do you see agriculture in 30 years?
It is going to split even further, I think. On the one hand, there will be more concepts such as solidarity agriculture, direct marketing and local trade. But at the same time, there will still be more large-scale farms that are highly rationalized, digitized, and automated. In recent years, an exciting start-up scene has slowly developed in Germany that will increasingly shape the agricultural landscape.
I would like to try no-till on my own farm. In the USA, a lot of testing is being done on sowing maize into existing catch crops so that the catch crop protects the maize from erosion and weeds afterwards. We are still working the soil too intensively at the moment, which increases the risk of erosion. Rainfall in Schwäbisch Hall during the summer consists almost exclusively of heavy rainfall events. It is important that the water remains on the surface, it must not flow superficially, but must be able to seep away.