Soil obligated

Brandenburg’s farmers are suffering from the drought. Investor Benedikt Bösel seeks solutions with sustainable farming methods

By Christoph M. Kluge

Benedikt Bösel walks across his field in Mark Brandenburg. The tall man’s quick stride reveals that he is in a habitual hurry. Suddenly, Bösel kneels, pulling a plant out of the ground. It has long, earthy roots. Bösel nods with satisfaction. “Roots are what we want,” he says, and hurries on to check on his freshly planted trees.

Before he dug with his hands in the marshy sand, Bösel was an investment banker. Sometimes you can still see it in his face. When his cell phone rings again, Bösel recognizes a name on the display and abruptly interrupts the conversation: “Sorry, I have to take this.” It’s about hay.

“In agriculture, we always talk about yield per hectare. But that’s not really the key performance indicator,” says Bösel. “The current system will sooner or later lead to a dead end. But I’m convinced that we can solve the big problems of our time through the issue of land use.” He’s referring to the climate crisis, social inequality, education and sluggish development in rural areas.

One problem cannot be ignored in Brandenburg: drought. The past two summers have been hot and dry. This year, too, drought is looming. According to the German Weather Service (DWD), May was “clearly too dry and full of sunshine”. This was compounded by cold nights, which disrupted plant growth. Drought leads to poor harvests – and thus to a shortage of fodder. Prices for hay and straw have risen significantly. For small farms in particular, this threatens their existence. “You can’t separate the issue of drought from the issue of soil,” says Bösel. “A healthy soil retains significantly more water than a sandy, dry soil.” Bösel believes soil quality can be significantly improved through sustainable forms of management. “Soil disturbance” must be avoided, he says. That’s why he doesn’t plow up his fields. That’s because the sun’s rays not only evaporate the water, the heat also destroys important bacteria, fungi and other organisms. Bösel took over the farm from his father in 2016. He grew up in western Germany. As a child, he spent his vacations in Madlitz, in nature. After military service with the mountain troops, he studied business finance at the University of Durham. As a 22-year-old investment banker at Sal. Oppenheim in Frankfurt, he experienced the financial crisis firsthand and saw “how this whole system collapsed.” Bösel earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Humboldt University, then worked for a while in real estate and venture capital. “In the first few years, I had existential fears, mainly because of the drought,” says the unusual farmer. At the time, he says, he believed that digitization would provide the answers to the questions of the Agriculture, he said, was that drones and blockchains could bring the future to the province. But then, he said, he realized the problems were deeper. “We need to think in terms of complex ecosystems.” Now he is converting his farm to agroforestry, a combination of agriculture with trees and shrubs.

Tree strips on cropland protect the soil from wind and reduce soil erosion. They also provide shelter for animals. In the long term, this management is even expected to improve soil quality. Bösel wants to combine agroforestry with grazing. That’s why he bought 70 head of cattle. In the future, the herd will graze on meadows interspersed with strips of trees. The paddock fences will then be moved every day, he explains, so that the cattle can always find fresh feed. The cattle will be followed by a mobile chicken coop. The poultry will scratch the ground, spreading the cattle manure, an important fertilizer. Eventually, the area will be used again as arable land and the cycle will start all over again, Bösel says. His farm has a long history. The Alt Madlitz castle estate was acquired in the mid-18th century by the East Prussian Counts Finck von Finckenstein. Friedrich Ludwig Karl Finck von Finckenstein, a senior Prussian official, expanded the simple manor house into a palace and invited scholars such as the Humboldts and numerous Romantic poets and musicians to Madlitz to celebrate and philosophize.

After the Second World War, the noble family was expelled and the manor expropriated according to the motto “Junkerland in Bauernhand”. The manor house became a state kindergarten, and the fields and meadows were now farmed collectively by an agricultural production cooperative (LPG). After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Karl Wilhelm Count Finck von Finckenstein, who was born here in 1923, returned to Madlitz, restored the now dilapidated buildings and modernized the farm. After his death, the count bequeathed the estate to his stepson, Benedikt Bösel’s father. And he in turn passed it on to his son. Today, the castle estate is an ecological model farm, which also includes forest areas and a hunt. The castle bakery bakes without chemical additives using traditional methods. There is a bed & breakfast and an event location where, for example, seminars are held. For Bösel, agroforestry is most important. He is guided by the methods of the Swiss-born farmer Ernst Götsch. He succeeded in growing cocoa in Brazil on land that was considered infertile. That gives Bösel hope that he can perform a similar miracle in the sands of the March. Last year, he invited Götsch to Madlitz. He took the opportunity to present the prototype of a new type of agricultural machine that he developed together with the Swiss machine manufacturer Rhenus TEK.

But is agroforestry an answer to the drought? Professor Tobias Cremer of the Eberswalde University of Sustainable Development (HNEE) is cautiously optimistic. “We won’t be able to prevent the drought with it, but more biodiversity will make the entire ecosystem more resilient.” So far, however, only a small portion of land in Germany is being managed in this way, he said. The economic benefits have yet to be proven, says Cremer, who is leading a long-term research project at HNEE. Students are currently planting trees, grass and crops on about seven hectares in northern Berlin and measuring the effects.

Benedikt Bösel is already firmly convinced that sustainable agriculture can also be more productive. The ex-investment banker invokes the theory of “true cost accounting,” which also includes hidden effects on people and the environment. As an example, he cites the catch crop that the farmer does not harvest but drills into the field to fertilize the soil. According to the conventional view, this is merely a cost factor. But if you take into account the value of the soil, which is improved in the long term by such a measure, then you can regard drilling as an investment in the future, says Bösel. In his view, European agricultural policy should not focus on crude subsidies, but should promote targeted measures that benefit the environment and society. “Some forecasts assume that we won’t be able to grow grain in Brandenburg in 30 years,” Bösel says. “But if you want to call the land your home in the long term, if you want to have children someday, then you also have to take responsibility for the region, and ask: What’s next?”

His hopes lie with the next generation. “The Fridays-for-Future generation will change everything,” he believes. In the future, he says, companies will be forced to take on more social and environmental responsibility because more and more consumers are demanding it. The agricultural economy of the future, he says, will have to bring together traditional farming methods and innovative high-tech.

No rain for weeks. The area in eastern Brandenburg is known for its dry spring. The consequences can also be felt in the grain fields of Schlossgut Alt Madlitz. If the grain harvest is poor, feed for the animals also becomes scarce – and expensive. The ecological agricultural and forestry enterprise wants to stand for sustainable and regenerative land use.

Model farm. Cattle feel at home at Schlossgut Alt Madlitz in Brandenburg. The pastures provide them with fresh fodder, and the trees provide shade.

Commander. Benedikt Bösel relies on tradition and high-tech.