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"Agriculture is a gateway into solving the bigger problems of our time"
Interview with agricultural economist and Brandenburg farmer, Benedikt Bösel.
I wanted to share with you this recent dialogue (fancy word for Zoom call) I had with agricultural economist and farmer Benedikt Bösel, originally published on Emerge.
Located less than two hours away from Berlin by train, Gut&Bösel is one example of an amazing local project that’s facilitating a shift towards a more ecological food system.
I’m happy to be able to share a climate-positive story. I’ve been really wary of sounding too much like a climate doomer on social media recently. Talking about the climate can really feel like you’re banging a broken drum. The louder you hit it, the more people cover their ears.
Last week I cried thinking about how generations of the future might only ever know about coral reefs as some relic from the past, a dated screensaver or VR simulation. Meanwhile, over 100 people have died in floods in Germany, ‘once in a millennium’ flooding in China and 800 tonnes of dead marine life washed up on the shores of Florida. Chemical pollution everywhere.
Maybe the thing about banging the climate drum is that you just need to hit the right note. That’s why I have this quote from social activist Toni Cade Bambara in my email signature:
The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.
In the article below, Bösel tells a story about a terminal cancer patient coming to the farm because she wanted to see that there’s still “hope for the future”. In the words of Britney Spears - imo an icon of resilience - “hope is is one of the most vulnerable and fragile things there is.”
Thinking about the coral reefs makes me want to cry and then it makes me want to go to the woods and hug my friends and dance and laugh and make love. This is why most of the time I’d rather share photos of vegetables and flowers and fields on social media than depressing statistics. We live on the most heartbreakingly gorgeous planet, scream it from the rooftops!!! Doomer optimism is where it’s at. Defiant hope and fierce love.
Uncover your ears and dance.
“Agriculture is a gateway into solving the bigger problems of our time.”
In the early 1980s a Swiss farmer called Ernst Götsch bought a piece of land in Brazil that had been decimated by intensive logging.
Due to decades of deforestation, degeneration and misuse, the land was dry and deserted. Götsch’s aim was to start a cocoa farm, but - unlike other farmers in the area - he saw that to bring life back to the land he would need to do more than simply plant rows and rows of cocoa and hope for the best. Using a system that later became known as syntropic agriculture, Götsch cultivated 500 hectares of trees and other native plants alongside the cocoa. This method improved the fertility of the soil and rebuilt the local ecosystem. Over time, scientists and locals were amazed to observe rain returning to the area after many years of drought.
Years later, on a farm in a drought-prone region of Germany, Benedikt Bösel discovered Götsch on YouTube. Having inherited his family’s farm business, Bösel realised that, after decades of intensive farming in the region, the reality of farming in Brandenburg was desertification and drought. Having spent his early career in finance and tech, he was convinced that the technological innovation coming out of Berlin was not the solution.
Today, Benedikt and his team manage the 3,000 hectares estate in Alt-Madlitz, a few hours from Berlin, according to syntropic and regenerative agricultural methods. Inspired by Götsch, trees and shrubs are integrated into animal and crop farming. A herd of 100 cows roam the area, rotating from field to field in a method known as holistic grazing, leaving behind their nutrient-rich manure. The multifunctional land-use project also includes chickens and a sustainable Christmas tree farm.
Gut&Bösel’s approach to agriculture is unusual in Germany, one of the largest meat producers in the European Union, but regenerative agriculture is already a well-established movement in the US, estimated to be worth $47.5 Billion in 2019. Last year, Netflix released a documentary called “Kiss the Ground”, which presented regenerative agriculture as a solution to the climate crisis, due to the capacity of healthy soil to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
In 2019 agriculture was responsible for 7.6% of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany, but it can also be part of the solution. In ecological farming systems carbon is 'captured' from the atmosphere and stored in the soil, meaning agricultural transition could be key if countries are to reach the Paris Agreement goal to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Bösel calls their method and vision “Beyond Farming”, looking forward to a future where regenerative agriculture plays a key role in combating climate change and reviving rural communities.
Were you always interested in becoming a farmer?
I grew up around farming because my family had a farm, but when I was younger I didn’t think agriculture was particularly attractive. I was more interested in earning money and working in the financial and startup sector. I believed that technology was the answer to all of our problems, that digital innovation was going to fix everything. My attitude started to change when I saw that the way people were speaking about the future was as if it wasn’t already happening. Everyone was talking about where we’re going to be in 2050, without seeing that the problems are happening right now - today - and especially in the agriculture space. I also saw that agriculture is so dominated by interest groups that nothing is really moving, even smart ideas don’t hit the ground because farmers are so busy that they don’t have the time and energy for it. So I thought, OK, if I want to change something I’m going to have to do it myself. That’s what made me come back to the farm. Even then, I was still very focused on technology, but quite quickly I understood that the real solution lies in the soil and in ecosystem health.
I realised that agriculture is a gateway into solving the bigger problems of our time. It’s not just about ecosystems — a big driver of inequality, for example, is the lack of rural development. That’s what people have to realise, that it’s not actually about agriculture, it’s about what the system of agriculture means for people and the planet. If we understood this we would be having different discussions.
3,000 hectares is a lot of land. How did you come to the conclusion that syntropic and regenerative methods were the best way to manage it?
Around the time that we had the first big drought on the farm we were talking about creating a 1,000 hectare “digital agriculture” project outside of Berlin, using all of the newest technology. I came out of a call with one of the largest agricultural companies in the world, and we were talking about drones, about blockchain, and about how to integrate all of this technology into the project. Right then I just thought, this has nothing to do with the problem! It hasn’t rained in 12 weeks, the soil is dry, there’s no life, no insects, no growth. It’s dead. I don’t need a blockchain, and a drone is not going to help me – I can already see that it’s dry right now. For me it was a very strong emotional feeling, and so I stopped everything I’d been planning and started looking for new ideas.
No one was speaking about regenerative farming in Germany at that time, but through YouTube I discovered Ernst Götsch. He’s really famous now, but back then his most popular video on YouTube had only 4k clicks. From there I discovered other incredible pioneers in ecological land management like Allan Savory, Gabe Brown and Elaine Ingham. That’s how it started.
How did you finance the project initially - did you receive support from anywhere?
Once I’d decided that regenerative agriculture was the way to go I tried to get funding for innovative programmes through the EU, and also at the regional level in Germany. The attitude from all sides was basically that if there’s no blockchain and no drone then it isn’t innovation. What I was proposing was social and ecological innovation, but the prevailing attitude was that innovation must be technological. So I decided to sell my car and all the shares I had from my previous life and got a small loan from Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees. With that starting capital I founded a new agricultural company and rented some small plots of land from the estate. We started planting trees for the agroforestry project, bought the first cows, the first chickens, and the first syntropy systems. I always said that by the time the money runs out, I will have found someone who understands why we're doing this and who wants to support it.
I didn’t do anything but work for the last 3-4 years. Now we are 30 people, we have a syntropic agroforestry system of 10 hectares, an agroforestry system of over 40 hectares, we have over 100 cows, chickens, a tree nursery and we are using many different composting methodologies. The whole estate is now basically regeneratively run with soil protection and cover crops. We work with many different individuals and interest groups and have interns and exchange students coming from all over the world. Right now we have an exchange student from Kenya.
What were your biggest challenges in terms of making this transition? And how do you measure your impact?
What I'm trying to do is basically empower people. The agricultural system is the way it is right now, but there is a growing group of people - young people - who’ve got the knowledge, amazing values and the passion to do something differently. What we have to do is bring these worlds together, combining that knowledge and passion with the agricultural industries.
One of the big challenges we have is that in order to enable farmers to make a transition to a different method of land management is that we need to be able to offer pretty precise data. Farmers know how to calculate their returns when they keep 5,000 pigs in a stable where they never see the daylight. If we want people to adopt a syntropic agriculture system that will be amazing for the ecosystem, with a high return and lower risk, then we need to be able to provide them with the numbers, because they don’t yet exist. So we are trying to fill this gap, doing scientific analysis and monitoring to gather that data and make it open source.
At the end of the day it’s difficult because farming is not a formula. Every location, every piece of land is so fundamentally different that no one can ever tell you what to do to guarantee a certain outcome.
With regards to the results we see, it’s manyfold depending on what project you’re looking at. The most immediate impact comes from the cows — they’re amazing. They close the nutrient cycle and build the soil so that it can store more carbon. You can smell it, how they nourish the soil, it happens pretty fast. Then you’re also producing an amazing product if you want to.
Certainly it’s a counter-narrative to the idea that keeping, or eating, animals is bad for the environment.
I have people working here who are very against eating animals, which there are tons of arguments for and everyone is entitled to make their own decisions, but I haven’t had one person come here and not understand how it makes total sense to use animals in this system. The level of misinformation around that is frightening.
If you look at the discussions around farming at the moment, everyone is upset. No one is happy, everyone is complaining and no one wants to go into farming. What I’ve observed is that we, as humans, are very good at being annoyed at things we think we can’t change, because if we think we can’t change it then it’s not our fault. If you focus that energy on something you do have the power to change then you’ll be surprised at how much you can do. I’m never going to become rich here as a farmer, but I can go to bed every night and be happy about it and enjoy the fact that people are taking value from what I’m doing. That gives me a lot of hope.
What else gives you hope?
The other day I had a visitor, a woman who has cancer, and she wrote us an email and said that one of her last wishes in life was to come to Alt-Madlitz because, she said, “I see in your project that there’s hope for the future.” That’s not something I would necessarily talk about to a group of farmers from the German Farmers Union, but there is a huge group of farmers who embrace these values. It’s about changing the spirit of farming. Some of the people who have been working with us have been working for free as interns because I couldn’t pay them yet, but they did it because they believe in the project, because they believe in what we can change through land use and through agriculture. I think that's super important.
There are not many young people in farming, but I think it’s really a misconception that young people don’t want to farm. That’s not been my experience at all. A lot of people are really keen to get involved but they don’t know how. People are really desperate to get outdoors and reconnect with nature, with animals and ecosystems.
We have 5-10 interns here at one time and I would guess that the oldest is probably 28-30. I’m 36 and when I was younger I wasn’t really aware of the climate issue. But if you’re in your early 20s today then you will have been hyper-aware of the climate crisis from a young age. One of our employees who manages the composting systems here is 22, and he is so reflective, with such great values. I didn’t think like that when I was 22. This also gives me huge hope. If I were able to, I could employ 400 people here because so many people want to do this stuff.
Let’s talk a bit more about agricultural tech (ag-tech), as you are a chairman of the AgTech platform of the German Association of Startups. I know you said that technology is not the solution, but does technology factor into what you do at the farm at all now?
What I realised in that first year of drought is that most ‘innovation’ is coming out of an exploitative understanding of ecosystems. If your baseline assumption of what land management looks like is a monoculture then, even if you have the best interdisciplinary team working on a tech solution, you’re only going to be able to - at best - reduce the symptoms of that system. Once you understand that nature is intelligent, then you can of course bring technology and software back into it.
Last winter I saw that Brandenburg farmers were protesting - perhaps counterintuitively - against new environmental regulations being set by the EU. As you said, “no one is happy in farming right now.” To me this is a clear instance where offering the financial aid and incentives to transition to regenerative land management would be an obvious solution that would benefit everyone. Outside of the German agriculture sector - because I don’t have that much insight into that world - I do sense that there is a shift happening and a movement developing around regenerative agriculture, in theory, if not in practice.
What often happens is that we completely ignore the farmers in that discussion. Farmers are just doing what they were always asked to do: produce as much as you can, for as cheaply as you can. Standardise. Specialise. Invest. Now, suddenly, politics and also consumers are wanting new things, different things, but they’re not really prepared to guide the farmers to where they need to go. They just say “you can’t use that chemical anymore and, by the way, 5% of your land is going to be used to protect insects.” Yet farmers are the ones that are taking the financial risk and who do the work. They’re the weakest link in that chain. Many of them would want to do something else, but they can’t because they’re stuck in the system. They have invested, they have specialised, they have debt obligations. If you want to have better animal welfare then great, but farmers need support to do that, otherwise they can’t do it. Some are struggling so much that they can’t even think about being more ecological because they’re just trying to make ends meet.
Then the big farmers’ associations - instead of telling farmers “look, we need to adapt, we need to change so we’re ready for the future” - they’re fighting to keep the status quo. So all the farmers that are being represented by those interest groups are being told, in a sense, “it’s all good, don’t change, we’re fighting for you not to change.” It’s absurd, if you think about it. If you were a forward-thinking association in Germany, you would say, “guys, you know what, we have done the best we could and it was good, we have good standards, what we produce is good quality, but life is changing, and if we want to be competitive, if we want to continue to be able to support our families, then we have to change, so let’s collectively take these steps to get us there.” Then once you’ve done that then there have to be new financing models in place. There’s a huge mechanism behind it, and politics is on the steering wheel — politicians set the rules and regulations, but we’re losing the farmers as we go just because of the narrative. The average age of a farmer in Germany is 55 or older, and they’ve been doing things a certain way for 20-30 years. It’s complex, but it’s not for the farmers to solve alone.
Yes, I can see that the way of relating to the farmers and bringing them on board is very important. This reflects the urban-rural divide in a way, where a rural way of life and rural people have been left behind in this decades-long push towards urbanisation and globalisation, and now we’re saying, “oh, whoops, that wasn’t the right approach at all, actually it’s destroying our climate”, and then looking towards rural, land-based solutions.
Then, on the other hand - as you mentioned - there’s a lot of “new blood” coming onto the scene and getting involved with farming, or wanting to get involved in farming, but not necessarily having access to land.
Absolutely. One thing I didn’t mention but you just bought up: access to land. People come from outside and pay insane amounts of money for land, then discover they can’t earn any money with it, so they plant thousands of hectares of monoculture corn or put solar panels on the soil. On the soil!! It’s devastating. Then this prime land, close to the city, that could be developed by young entrepreneurial farmers, is not available to them.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s called conventional, organic or regenerative - it’s not about that. What it is about is managing your land and animals so that the soil and the ecosystem get better. That’s what’s going to help to bring agriculture into the twenty-first century.
I’ve been really quite busy recently, finally setting myself up a freelance copywriter in Germany, with some interesting climate and technology projects on the horizon (also, y’know, summer). Rest assured, I’m working on another original newsletter article to share with you soon 💚
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