Organic farming: between traditional knowledge and high-tech
The Schleswig-Holstein-based group WESTHOF BIO and Upper Bavarian company Huabahof are examples of the benefits that technological innovations can offer for vegetable growing and dairy farming.
Organic farming is regarded as the traditional alternative to the highly mechanized conventional agricultural industry. However, the future lies in the combination of technological innovations and traditional ecological farming. Organic farmers who have already introduced a lot of technology to their operations show how this can succeed and what advantages it brings.
Given that the organic farming segment also needs to adapt to the consequences of climate change, a fundamental rejection of technological innovations can be counterproductive. Because this adaptation process calls for new strategies and an openness to new technologies. In the future, there will need to be enough food to feed the around ten billion people that the UN predicts will live on Earth by 2050. Urs Niggli, Swiss agricultural scientist and pioneer of organic farming, is convinced that this can only succeed if the entire agricultural industry becomes sustainable. New technologies help us to use fewer resources, make better use of our waste, and cultivate existing land more efficiently1.
Scepticism about technological progress?
Organic farming relies heavily on knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. And organic farmers are the important carriers of this traditional knowledge. In recent years, public discourse has voiced the criticism that there is too much scepticism about technological progress within the organic farming community and that this is preventing the segment from making the best use of scientific and technical advances.
Rapid structural change in agriculture
The agricultural sector is undergoing a fast-paced structural shift: The number of farms has fallen sharply over the years. Of the 1.5 million farms that existed in 1960 in what was at that time the territory of West Germany, there were only around 258,700 remaining in what is now the entire Federal Republic in 2022. At an average of around 62 hectares, farms now are much larger than they were 60 years ago, when they covered around 8.7 hectares on average2. More and more farms are opting to switch to organic farming. In this segment, the number of farms has more than tripled in the last 20 years.
Structural change is also occurring in the field of technology: New genetic engineering technology such as genetic scissors, digitalization, AI-supported agriculture, renewable energies and mechanical engineering innovations are all important concepts in this context.
“Digitalization can help to better organise agricultural processes, e.g., with the help of autonomous steering systems in tractors, area monitoring using satellite data, automatic milking robots, drones to protect wild animals, and so on.”
Huabahof as flagship project
Since 2005 the Huabahof farm, established by farmer and engineer Franz Xaver Demmel, has been certified by the German certification body Naturland as an organic farm for meat and dairy products.
The farm was one of the first in Germany to build a free-stall dairy barn in the early 1980s and was therefore ahead of its time even then. In the meantime, the Huabahof has been converted to an “Energy Plus Farm” and is showing how it is possible to keep 85 dairy cows in a way that is as carbon neutral as possible.
Franz Xaver Demmel is the tenth generation to run the farm: “In my younger years, on the old farm, I gained experience and accumulated a lot of knowledge. When it became clear that our son would follow in our footsteps and carry on the business, we asked ourselves what aspects would be important for the farm business of the future. The next few years will determine whether we become a relic of the past or a beacon of the future.”
An “energy plus business”
At the Huabahof, the regenerative energy supply and energy management system (EMS), which were developed in conjunction with the Technical University of Munich and the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences and control the farm’s energy flows, are important aspects of the farm’s operations. The company’s own solar panels supply electricity, and the woodchip heating system is fuelled by wood from the property’s own woodland. The farm uses electric vehicles like an electric farm loader, an electric wheel loader and a self-driving electric feed mixer wagon. These vehicles also serve as mobile storage units for electricity. The Huabahof produces two-thirds more energy than it consumes, and the excess is fed to the local grid.
The heart of the farm is the new dairy barn that was built largely of wood in 2019. The barn is fitted with a low-emission, animal welfare-friendly slatted floor with rubber edges, which reduces emissions from the manure by 50 percent. A robot scraper system helps by pushing the manure down and keeping the floor clean. The light frequency-controlled daylight control, weather-controlled opening of the barn walls and fan control ensure an optimum microclimate. Thanks to the two milking robots, the cows can be milked whenever they feel the need. The analysis technology integrated into the milking robots also helps ensure that as little medication as possible is used. A vitality profile is created for each cow, which is completed with the help of pedometers. The animals can eat, sleep and go out to the pasture whenever they want, because they can open the gate to the pasture themselves with the transponder they wear.
Westhof takes organic production a step further
Westhof, which has been family-owned since 1972, lies in the far north of the country in the district of Dithmarschen. Rainer Carstens switched the company to organic farming as long as 30 years ago, and the farm has been Bioland-certified since 1989. He started with 60 hectares of arable land. Today, the WESTHOF BIO Group that Rainer Carstens founded with Paul-Heinrich Dörscher owns around 1,200 hectares. Most of them are in the west of Dithmarschen right on the North Sea coast. The nutrient-rich soil and clean air offer the ideal conditions for vegetable farming. The six-year crop rotation ensures that the soil remains healthy. Germany’s only purely organic freezing company also belongs to the WESTHOF BIO Group.
Sustainable organic greenhouse
On an area of 10 hectares, 109,000 tomato plants and 130,000 pepper plants grow in two greenhouses that are among the largest organic greenhouses in Germany. Unlike in conventional greenhouses, the plants do not grow on substrate but on marshy “Dithmarscher” soil. They are irrigated with collected rainwater and countless bumble bees ensure pollination.
Self-sufficient energy supply from renewable energies
“We have been energy neutral since 2015 because we produce more energy than we use,” says Rainer Carstens. “Our goal is to give as much back to nature as we take. To be able to operate energy-neutrally, we rely on a symbiotic energy and nutrient cycle.” As well as solar energy, Westhof Energie GmbH & Co. KG also produces energy from its biogas plant and CHP unit. The biogas plant only ferments vegetable residues from the crop rotation and grass cuttings from the maintenance of flowering meadows and clover grass areas. The fermentation residues from the plant are then used as organic fertilisers for the plants.
In the fields, robots take over the manual work
Westhof uses robots to control weeds in the fields. “Way back in 2008 I was looking for a sustainable, chemical-free and automated way to control weeds, and so I contacted the West Coast University of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule Westküste),” says Rainer Carstens. This resulted in the launch of the research project “High-precision weed identification in organic farming” in 2013. Over the following years, the weeder robot (an 8-track robot) was developed and implemented. The system, comprising artificial intelligence, robotics and Big Data, enables the destruction of weeds in crops with millimetre precision. A replica of the human brain (deep learning/machine learning) was trained to distinguish crops (e.g., carrots, beetroot, spinach) from weeds. Because the AI has been trained with large volumes of data, the system achieves a high level of accuracy of around 98% under constantly changing weather and environmental conditions.
1 Niggli, U. (2021, 19 October). Landwirtschaft und Ernährung zwischen Hightech und Tradition (Agriculture and food between high-tech and tradition), lecture (in German only) for the Winterthur Scientific Society. www.ngw.ch/vortraege-archiv/211029_niggli
2 Federal Statistical Office of Germany. (2022, 2 November). Betriebsgrößenstruktur landwirtschaftlicher Betriebe nach Bundesländern (Farm size structure of agricultural holdings by federal state). DESTATIS. www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Branchen-Unternehmen/Landwirtschaft-Forstwirtschaft-Fischerei/Landwirtschaftliche-Betriebe/Tabellen/betriebsgroessenstruktur-landwirtschaftliche-betriebe.html