How Planting Trees Could Inject New Life Into Dry Soil
Dry soil, hardly any rain — this summer's drought is making life difficult for farmers. In one of the driest regions in Germany, environmentally friendly farmer Benedikt Bösel is turning his fields into a laboratory, experimenting with an exciting new approach.
ALT MADLITZ — In summer, Benedikt Bösel likes to set up his table out in the fields, with herds of cattle grazing nearby. The 38-year-old has an estate and a large farm in Brandenburg, the driest region in Germany. For many years now, he has been a leader in the world of environmentally friendly farming, using Instagram, a book and talk show appearances to spread the message about his mission to save the soil.
“Everywhere now, you can feel that water is becoming scarcer, and we don’t have any healthy soil left,” says Bösel, who runs a large farm with 1,000 hectares of arable land and 2,000 hectares of woodland in Alt Madlitz, in the Briesen region, about an hour from Berlin. He has turned his fields into a kind of laboratory. In a region with one of the lowest precipitation rates in all of Germany, and with very sandy soil, he is developing new ways of using the land, in response to the environmental crisis.
Agro-forestry systems play an important role in reducing the damage caused by drought and erosion. In simple terms, this means interspersing trees and bushes throughout arable fields. The trees are regularly spaced out in rows across the fields. Experts believe this helps the soil to retain moisture, meaning that extreme weather causes less damage. When tilling the land, most farmers prefer to “drive in long, straight lines,” says Bösel, who works in partnership with a number of research institutes and is supported by the German Ministry of Agriculture.
According to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research’s records on droughts, there is a vast swathe of land, running from eastern Lower Saxony across Saxony-Anhalt to Berlin and Brandenburg, that has been consistently too dry for the past five years. As a result, farms in the east of Germany, which tend to be far larger than the national average, have suffered poor harvests.
In dry summers, you can see huge clouds of dust trailing behind the tractors. “We have tidied up the countryside, creating larger and larger fields that are all cultivated in the same way, and that causes issues for sustainability,” says Klaus Müller, a professor at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, Germany. he explains that for many years after German reunification, large farms in the East were successful in the race to offer customers lower prices.
04 May 2023: A farmer drills seed on a field in the Oder-Spree district of East Brandenburg.
No fields without trees
Environmentally friendly farmer Bösel lives by the maxim that every field should have trees. A hundred hectares of fields without trees between them – “That doesn’t make sense,” says Renke de Vries, an agro-forestry expert in Bösel’s team. They plant aspen, maple and birch, but also hazel trees and fruit trees such as plums, pears and medlars on the fields. The soil is also spread with mulch to help it retain moisture.
The German Agro-Forestry Association is convinced that large areas of arable fields, a common sight in the east of Germany, are actually counterproductive for harvests. “It always takes its toll. When the weather doesn’t play ball, you notice that poor harvests become more frequent,” says forestry expert Christian Böhm, chairman of the German Agro-Forestry Association.
His colleague Tobias Cremer, at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, says that agro-forestry has many advantages for the environment and the natural world: it protects against wind erosion, stops soil from losing as much water, encourages the build-up of humus and promotes biodiversity. Agriculture has been undergoing a slow revolution, recognizing that using more and more fertilizer and farming more and more intensively doesn’t do the soil any good.
“We can’t just carry on as we have before,” says Cremer, who runs an agro-forestry pilot project, citing extreme temperatures and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall. But he says that agro-forestry is still in its infancy, although interest among farmers in Germany is growing.
Being a farmer will be one of the coolest jobs around.
This is not a new way of using the land; according to the German Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, it was widespread in the Middle Ages. Around the end of the 19th century, it began to disappear as farming became more intensive. Farmers felt that trees got in the way. Bösel says: “Over the last 40 or 50 years, farmers have done exactly what they were asked to do. They were asked to produce as much as possible – and as cheaply as possible. That meant they became much more specialized and more reliant on technology.”
04 July 2023, North Rhine-Westphalia, Pulheim: A farmer harvests grain with his combine harvester.
How much does it cost?
The German Farmers Association says that farmers are worried about the high costs of agro-forestry and think it is too expensive to cultivate the land in this way. According to the Agro-Forestry Association, farmers need to invest around €6,000 per hectare, but the funding available is only €60 per hectare. Another issue cited by the Farmers Association is that the majority of agricultural land is rented: “Leaseholders are only able to implement agro-forestry techniques if the landowner agrees, and if they have a long-term lease on the land.”
There should be no argument about the advantages for the environment. Trees and bushes absorb the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and the build-up of humus – dark, nutrient-rich soil – makes the field better at trapping carbon. Farmers should be rewarded for reducing their environmental impact, says the Farmers Association: “At the moment, politicians at a European level are working on a shared certification system for ‘carbon sinks.’ Expectations among farmers are high.”
In Alt Madlitz, Benedikt Bösel’s book Rebels of the Earth – How to Save the Soil, and Ourselves! shows his pioneering spirit. “If these regenerative agriculture techniques can work economically, environmentally and socially here in our very dry region, then they can be successful in other regions," he says. Does he see himself as a hero saving the planet? Bösel, who was named “Farmer of the Year” in 2022, at a time when farms are dying out, says his vision is that “In 2035, being a farmer will be one of the coolest jobs around.”
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