On his farm, Benedikt Bösel likes to set the table in the middle of the pasture in summer. The herd of cattle grazes next to it. The 38-year-old has an estate and a large farm in Brandenburg, in the driest area of Germany. He has long been a celebrity among organic farmers, on many of his Instagram videos, in his book and on talk shows he tells how he wants to save the soil.
"Now it can be felt everywhere that water is becoming increasingly scarce and we no longer have healthy soil," says Bösel, who in Alt Madlitz in the municipality of Briesen, about an hour from Berlin, runs an XXL farm with 1000 hectares of arable land and 2000 hectares of forest managed. His fields are a kind of test laboratory. In view of the climate crisis, he is developing new forms of land use in one of Germany's regions with the lowest rainfall, with sandy soils.
Agroforestry systems are part of this to reduce drought damage and erosion. Put simply, it combines trees and shrubs with arable crops. The trees stand at regular intervals in rows on the fields. Experts assume that moisture is better retained in the soil and extreme weather causes less damage. So far, in agriculture, it has usually been the case that you "want to go straight ahead for a long time," says Bösel, who works with several research institutes and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.
Yield losses in eastern Germany
According to the drought monitor at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), a strip from eastern Lower Saxony via Saxony-Anhalt to Berlin and Brandenburg has been permanently too dry for five years. The farms in eastern Germany, which are far larger than the national average, have to reckon with yield losses.
In drought summers, tractors can be seen pulling long clouds of dust behind them. "We have cleared out the landscape and farmed larger and larger areas uniformly, which leads to sustainability problems," says Klaus Müller, professor at the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Land Research (ZALF). For a long time after reunification, the large companies in the East had had good cards in the "cost-cutting competition".
At organic farmer Bösel, there is no field without rows of trees. A hundred hectares of land with no trees in between, "that doesn't make much sense," says Renke de Vries, the agroforestry expert on Bösel's team. Quaking aspens, maples, birches, but also hazelnut trees and types of fruit such as plums, pears and medlars grow on the field. The soil is covered with mulch to better retain moisture.
Benefits of agroforestry for climate and nature
The German Association for Agroforestry is convinced that the large areas of arable land, as they exist all over the country in the east, are now rather counterproductive, also for the harvest and the yield. "It definitely pays off. If the weather doesn't play along, you notice that you have more failures," says forest scientist Christian Böhm, who is the chairman of the board of the association.
His colleague, the forest scientist Tobias Cremer from the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, also sees several advantages of agroforestry for the climate and nature: protection against wind erosion, less moisture loss in the soil, humus expansion, preservation of biodiversity. There is a slow change in thinking in agriculture. Even more fertilization and more intensive cultivation are not good for the soil.
"We cannot continue as before," says Cremer, who oversees a model project on agrofrost, in view of extreme temperatures and extreme weather events such as heavy rain. But according to him, Agrofrost land use is still in its infancy, even if interest among farmers in Germany is growing.
This form of farming is not new; according to the Federal Information Center for Agriculture, it was already widespread in the Middle Ages. At the end of the 19th century, with the intensification of agriculture, it gradually disappeared. Trees were perceived as disturbing, it is said. Organic farmer Bösel says: "The farmers have done exactly what they should for the last 40 or 50 years. They should produce a lot - and as cheaply as possible. That means they have specialized more and more and always further technological."
High costs for agroforestry systems
The German Farmers' Association cites high costs for agroforestry systems as concerns among farmers. In addition, it is more expensive to cultivate the area. According to the Association for Agroforestry, a farmer has to invest around 6,000 euros per hectare. So far, it has been subsidized with 60 euros per hectare. The farmers' association also sees a hurdle in the fact that a large part of the agricultural land is leased. "For the leaseholders, the planting of agroforestry is only possible if the landowner agrees and there are long contract periods for the leased land."
There should be agreement on the benefits for the climate. Because trees and shrubs bind the harmful greenhouse gas CO2, the field can also become a better carbon store through more humus build-up. The farmer's association believes that the farmer's climate performance should be paid better. "Currently, a uniform certification of "carbon sinks" is being worked on at European level. The expectations on the part of farmers are high," it says.
Benedikt Bösel in Alt Madlitz shows with his book "Rebels of the Earth - how we save the ground and thus ourselves!" a lot of pioneering spirit. "If these methods of regenerative agriculture work economically, ecologically and socially here in our extreme location, then they can also be used successfully in other regions." Does he want to become a climate saver? In any case, Bösel, who was also "Farmer of the Year 2022", formulates visions like these, especially in times of farm deaths: "Being a farmer in 2035 has long been one of the coolest jobs ever."