'People think that farmers are unwise, that we only work with our hands. But that’s not true, we work with our brains,” says German farmer Thomas Kläber.
The sun is breaking through the clouds and shedding its light on the golden fields. We’re in the German region of Brandenburg that surrounds the capital Berlin, and while most people tilt their heads backwards enjoying the warm sun on their faces, farmers Thomas Kläber and Jürgen Rickmann have their attention firmly on the ground.
It’s late June and harvest is only one week away, and they have been hoping for more rain. Situated in the community Oder-Spree, southeast of the German capital, Mr. Kläber and Mr. Rickmann are farming under somewhat difficult conditions. The soil in this region is sandy and lack of water poses a real challenge. The difference between a rainy and a dry season can mean the difference between profit and loss.
Precision farming in practice
Nevertheless, the two neighboring farmers love their job and wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love being a farmer. Being outdoors a lot, no days alike. There’s a lot you need to know. About markets, animals, soils and crops. People think that farmers are unwise, that we only work with our hands. But that’s not true, we work with our brains,” says Thomas Kläber.
As part of a cooperative of 46 farmers with approximately 1400 hectares, Kläber is applying both brains and skills to make sure they do their utmost to increase their yields of grain, maize and rapeseed. In the past decade, however, another factor has become crucial to the way they operate: environmental impact.
The key words for both Kläber and Rickmann are ‘increased precision’, in application of both fertilizers and pesticides.
Environmental pressure – from within
“We consistently take soil samples to measure the development of nutrient levels,” explains Jürgen Rickmann.
“Environmental measures are very important for us, and we do this because we ourselves want to. Of course, we also see that consumers and politicians are very much aware of this, but as I see it, it’s crucial that we manage our land in a sensible way. It’s important to be careful with the input, both because of our economy and because of the environment. You have to remember that we are also thinking about how we hand this over to the next generation,” says Thomas Kläber.
Switched from organic to conventional
By being more precise in their application of input, they have managed to increase yields significantly.
“We use approximately the same input as before, but we use it smarter. This way we have increased our yields by up to five percent,” says Kläber.
This yield increase comes on top of the already high productivity European farmers have.
“Actually, until 2008 we also had an organic field, but we decided to turn it into conventional, and the result was that we doubled the production on it,” explains Kläber.
Both he and Rickmann believe that most consumers are unaware of the significant environmental improvements that have been made in European agriculture over the past decades. They have experienced that questions from consumers are becoming more and more critical of conventional farming.
“I think consumers believe that farmers are using far more fertilizers and pesticides than we actually do,” says Rickmann.
Open farms – open dialogue
One of the things several farmers in the region are doing to explain to consumers how they operate, is to invite them to an open-day at the farm.
“We do this once a year. Last time we had more than 1000 people visiting. Many are surprised when they learn more about what we do,” says Thomas Kläber.
“I see an exciting future. I think organic is just the fashion now. We will continue to develop farming, through better technology, methods and knowledge,” says Rickmann.
Thomas Kläber nods and smiles: “I’m a farmer. Of course I’m optimistic! We just have to convince consumers that what we’re doing is also right for the environment.”