Farmer of the Year: The man who wants to save Germany’s soil

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Benedikt Bösel likes to get his hands dirty. Wherever he goes to talk about his work, the Brandenburger takes two bowls of soil with him – one filled with the dry, light sandy soil of his homeland, the other filled with healthy, deep brown soil. “How it smells, how it tastes,” he enthused in March on NDR talkshow.

Bösel, born in 1984, manages a lush 2,000 hectares of forest and 1,000 hectares of arable land with “Gut und Bösel” in Alt Madlitz, not far from the Polish border. His career led him temporarily to investment banking via an English boarding school and studies in finance and agricultural economics before he took over his parents’ organic farm in 2016. Since then he has been testing special methods of regenerative organic farming and founded a non-profit foundation that develops and researches these land use models. The proportion of permanent employees has doubled to around 30. And Bösel is also making a name for himself nationwide: in 2022 he was named Farmer of the Year and his book “Rebellen der Erde” has just been published. We catch him on the phone where he has to prove his multitasking skills.

WELT: Mr Bösel, you experienced a key moment in spring 2018. At that time you rejected all previous plans for the farm. Why?

Benedict Bösel: I just came from a conversation with an agricultural machinery manufacturer, it was about drones, the integration of blockchain technology, combine harvesters and manure spreaders that can collect area-specific data. I went out to the field. It hadn’t rained again for weeks. There I was, in the middle of the most important vegetative phase, and everything was yellow and brown, not a single insect flew. At that moment I asked myself: How can I change this? All the technological solutions that would have put me in incredible debt for the next few years wouldn’t make the soil and ecosystem healthy again.

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WELT: They began to look for alternative ways of using land sustainably. You found what you were looking for in Brazil, Japan, North America and South Africa.

evil: When I saw how successful these pioneers were at work and how little their ideas for regenerative agriculture were widespread, I realized: This is the future. We bring these ideas to Alt Madlitz, adapt them to our location and collect the data so that we can later pass on the knowledge. If we can show that the methods bring economic, ecological and social benefits in this extremely sandy, dry place, we can initiate a paradigm shift.

WELT: What methods do you work with?

evil: Basically, we are trying to put everything back together that should have been separated over the last 50 years, i.e. animals, soil, agriculture, forests, people. Closed cycles that support each other should be created again. We try to build up the soil and increase biodiversity through agricultural use: with the help of composting, agroforestry and holistic pasture management.

To do this, we plant green strips with berry, fruit or nut trees on the fields. These so-called syntropic agroforestry strips additionally increase water and carbon storage in the soil and protection against erosion. Once the grain has been harvested, so-called undersows and catch crops immediately protect the soil again. Later in the year they are grazed by the cattle. We change the pasture several times a day to increase the growth and photosynthetic performance of the plants. We use it to build up ground incredibly quickly and well. The animals, the fruit or the nuts can simultaneously represent other products. We also have a tree nursery and are working intensively on the question of how we can convert our pine monoculture into resilient mixed forests.

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New seeds for a healthier forest: Up until now, pine trees have been the main species growing on the barren sandy soil

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein

WELT: We are talking here about the conversion of entire ecosystems. How long does it take to experience success or failure?

evil: We consciously try a lot. If you don’t want to make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. A huge success is the planting of self-grown trees, with which we have no problems in the worst drought phases. The soil structure with the cows is also quick, water absorption and holding capacity improve.

What will take longer are the planting strips. We will only be able to harvest the first plums and apples in relevant quantities in ten to twelve years. What we also see as a huge success: We now have 2000 visitors a year, and science and politics are also becoming more and more open to these topics. A research project with the federal government is now collecting our data on soil health, greenhouse gases, animal welfare, water and biodiversity. The results are to be converted into an economic value in order to make the true achievements in agriculture more visible – farmers must be paid for environmental protection. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, German agriculture currently produces 90 billion euros in external costs such as soil or biodiversity loss.

WELT: However, what did not work?

evil: An instructive failure were the first plantings with older trees from the nursery, their roots cannot meet the requirements here. We had to water them during droughts to keep them alive. At the beginning we didn’t set up any bite protection for a newly planted agroforestry area – you quickly noticed that deer and red deer also really enjoy the trees. And I’m a bad communicator, not only my girlfriend and my family tell me that. Excuse me, this is the second time my manager has called me.

The telephone call is interrupted. When Bösel reports back a few minutes later, he’s already sitting in his “Brummi”, a kind of off-road golf cart. “Our cows are just giving birth to their calves, a heifer is about to calve, so I’m going out for a moment. I’m on my way, but we can also talk so wonderfully.”

WELT: There are also other ideas for making agriculture more sustainable: soilless gardens like hydroponics or lab-grown meat, which they criticize as “patenting food.” Why are these methods not suitable for you?

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The cattle graze the so-called intermediate crops in the fields

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein

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Provide shade and strengthen the ground: Newly planted trees in Alt-Madlitz

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein

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Responsible for the agroforestry department at Gut Madlitz: Renke de Vries

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein

evil: These technological possibilities may fill a small niche in the future. My problem with that is that these approaches get an incredible amount of attention – from investors, politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs. We need that attention, those talented people, and all that capital much more to understand our ecosystems and figure out how to transform our agriculture so that we can also do conservation. 95 percent of our food comes from the ground. Agriculture is by far the greatest lever to solve the major problems of our time such as climate change, species extinction and poor health.

WELT: They say making money is difficult. At the same time, you ask the question whether you could make more money with your model in the end. How financially stable is your farm?

evil: Our operations can be self-sustaining, but of course there are challenges. We’ve had four years of drought, severe storms, Corona and avian influenza. In addition to these worries, there is a summer like last year. With an outside temperature of 35 degrees and 70 degrees Celsius on the ground, everything you did to build up the soil and diversity burns up after the harvest. You are thrown back and understand that “keep it up” is simply no longer an option.

That was also one of the reasons why I set up the foundation – to use the data to show that regenerative farming methods can lead to more profitable business models. This knowledge is not widespread because for decades the aim was to produce as much and as cheaply as possible. The data is the key to implementing sustainable agriculture at scale. No farmer would invest in something that they do not know will later help them earn more.

WELT: Your approach is now getting a lot of attention. How many farmers knock on your door?

evil: Around a sixth of the people who contact us are colleagues, especially conventional ones. Many farmers have long understood that the challenges are getting bigger and alternative solutions must be pursued. So far I have not received any negative feedback. I always try to say very openly: I don’t have any answers today, some things will work, others won’t. I am a farmer myself in a region where there is not much to smile about – I live with these worries and fears and frustration every day.

It’s lowing in the background. “Is that the heifer calving? The one who just came by?” Bösel can be heard asking.

WELT: How do the long-standing employees deal with the change, do conflicts arise?

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The permanent team is growing, meanwhile around 30 permanent employees are employed here

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein

evil: Some colleagues grew up with a completely different philosophy than other parts of the new team. One would like to tear down the hedge so that one can drive straight ahead, the others plant this hedge. (laughs) Nevertheless, diversity in the team is important – we try to find solutions that can later be implemented on a large scale. To do that, you have to keep your feet on the ground. If only I had people who were just im Agroforestry see the future, then we just floated away in our bubble. The old have knowledge that the young do not, and vice versa.

WELT: You write in your book that during your short banking career you also wanted to earn a lot of money quickly. What gets you excited today?

evil: I found it fascinating at the time what was happening there. It didn’t bother me that you could make a lot of money in investment banking. (He laughs) Today, meaningful work with nature and animals drives me to see how everything can change – and to find many people who draw hope and courage from it. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life. That’s why I see it as my responsibility to use this and, if everything goes well, maybe be able to help many people later. I am also moved by the conviction that our work can have a huge impact on a better life for our children.

Gut and Boesel Lea Kristina Ligat LandVision Alt Madlitz GmbH Schlossstr.  32 |  D-15518 Briesen (Mark) Mobile: +49 15121432625 www.gutundboesel.org @gutundboesel IMG_0722-2

Benedikt Bösel: “Rebels of the Earth. How we save the ground and thus ourselves”, Scorpio Verlag, March 2023

Source: Emanuel Finckenstein



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