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Regen Ag Renegade: How an investment banker turned farmer is making regenerative ag happen in Germany

October 22, 2019

Benedikt Bosel’s journey to regenerative agriculture and managing his family’s 2,000-acre farm one hour east of Berlin didn’t start out in a straight line. 

“I had a prior life in investment banking and venture capital, so when I took over the farm, I thought tech and innovation were going to be key,” he tells AFN. “But I realized pretty fast that we have to think about the root causes of problems, but in many instances, tech looks at fighting the outcomes of problems.”

This epiphany sent Bosel on an extended journey of discovery about the various different ways of managing a farm to achieve more than just the best yield possible. Ultimately, the quest for answers about addressing the root of problems took him to the roots of his farm – literally.

Soil health has become a hot discussion topic in nearly every segment of the food industry as more and more discoveries are being made about how recent conventionally-accepted farming practices like tillage and synthetic and chemical input applications have degraded topsoil at a staggering rate. 

The world requires topsoil to grow 95% of the food it consumes, but the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we only have about 60 years left of farming at our current rate of soil degradation. It also predicts that we are losing roughly 30 soccer fields worth of soil each minute resulting from intensive farming practices. Add in the fact that generating three centimeters of topsoil takes roughly 1,000 years and the picture becomes incredibly grim. 

“There are different rules of thinking in agriculture like the soil food web, compost tea, Joel Salatin’s grass farming, Gabe Brown,” he explains. “The funny thing is that all of those schools of thought, who didn’t know each other, all follow the same principles: as little soil disturbance as possible, soil armor, living roots as long as you can, high diversity in plants and animals.”

Bosel and his family quickly set to work adopting regenerative agriculture principles from different schools of thought to see what worked best on their land. Although some may describe these different ideologies as dogmatic, many proponents of the regenerative agriculture schools of thought will readily encourage each individual farmer to find the combination of practices that produce the best soil health on their land.

This investment in regenerating the soil has been no small undertaking. The farm encompasses an old English park from the 1700s, serves as the extended Bosel family home, and boasts 20 employees. This forced Bosel to search for smaller, incremental steps where the learning curve was more forgiving to the farm’s balance sheet.

“We introduced different concepts at a project scale on one part of the farm, and now there are other parts of the estate’s agricultural land that we’re already running more regeneratively. The main estate is dominated with a lot of cover crops and we try to reduce soil disturbance, but we are still forced to use a plow; that’s something we still haven’t solved for yet over the last 1.5 years since adopting a new way.”

Livestock has also been a new addition to the farm. Bosel runs cattle following Allan Savory’s methodologies; regularly rotating cattle as they might migrate in the wild. He hopes to add laying hens in the coming year. Like many other parts of the world, Germany is debating the future of livestock production and to what extent meat should be part of the standard diet. As a subscriber to the Allan Savory method of holistic management, Bosel sees livestock as an integral part of the natural world and a vital source of increasing biodiversity on a farm.

“We do workshops and bring together 300 to 400 visitors each year. When you bring vegans to the pasture and you have them watch the cows and explain what we do and why we do it, that is important. We need it on a larger scale because they have never heard about it or seen it. It’s not their fault,” he explains. “That’s one of the main elements of regenerative agriculture. It offers consumers a way back to the natural world.”

By his account, making regenerative agriculture mainstream in Germany seems like it may be a tough proposition. Some farmers are struggling to make ends meet and don’t have the emotional freedom or spare income to think about adopting new production methodologies. There are other farmers who earn a lot of money as the result of possessing farmers with rich soil, reliable rainfall, and steady government subsidies. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

“Then there are those who are caught in the system because they invested in a pig stable a couple of years ago and the machinery to go with it. It’s not an easy thing to get out of and I think it’s important to keep that in mind when talking about farmers converting to regenerative agriculture. What I do see through the workshops we do or people I meet, however, is that a number of conventional farmers are looking for new ways to experiment with bio-based inputs, cover crops, and other things.”

Bosel has organized a number of workshops on regenerative agriculture to bring experts from around the world to Germany to speak with farmers. Joel Salatin, Ray Archuelta, and Ernst Götsch have already made appearances and Bosel is hoping to bring Gabe Brown next Fall. Young farmers are showing the most interest in these workshops and a more open mind when it comes to trying things differently. In Germany, farmers are often likened to dinosaurs but Bosel has had a number of individuals offer to work on his farm for free just to learn about and engage in regenerative agriculture.

The workshops will come in handy considering the challenges Bosel has identified to promoting regenerative agriculture throughout Germany. The region is plagued by extended drought periods, for example, and he believes it takes roughly two to five years to see the benefits of converting to regenerative agriculture practices. Germany’s subsidy system also provides a disincentive for farmers to try new things, he adds.

Bosel may have a long journey ahead when it comes to the continued effort to regenerate his family farm and spreading the word throughout Germany’s farming community. But considering how far he has come from when he started this journey, the future is promising.

“Farming by far is our biggest instrument or measure to overcome 80% of the big problems in the world: health, in particular, inequality, culture, education, rural development, and obviously CO2 sequestration. That’s all immediately connected to farming,” he says. “I think we can be part of something incredibly great. If I solve problems here, maybe that can help people elsewhere solve other problems, as well.”

Do you know a regen ag renegade? Let me know [email protected]

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