The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Tag: Biodynamics (page 1 of 2)


“One of the central hubs of German biodynamic plant breeding community”. We were told this by many people through our travels and we decided that we had to visit Dottenfelder-hof (translated version). After a nice hike in the morning from the train station we arrived invigorated to meet with our host Martin Kern, a very personable character with many years of plant breeding experience. Martin showed us all around the Hof, with brief stops at many of the farm’s constituent areas. . In German biodynamic tradition the site is the collection of many integrated and collaborative facets. Some examples of these endeavors are the plant breeding programs, dairy cow and chicken production, cheese and bread making, anthroposophical educational programs, and a biodynamic storefront. Many of the people who worked there lived there too and with all that was going on, it was a bustling scene (about 100 people living and working there).  I could compare it to intentional communities in the US but that would be misleading. The place seemed more like a well organized, fairly self-sustaining village. Lots of people making a living centered around an agricultural and educational foundation.

Carrot breeding carrot selection carrot storage
Rodelika carrot tasting, selection and overwinter storage

Some of their achievements in the area of plant breeding:

Carrots – Dietrich Bauer has spent over 20 years breeding vegetables. What he is most famous for is his carrot variety ‘Rodelika’, available in the US through Turtle Tree Seeds. This carrot is famous for its flavor, especially when juiced.  “Rodelika” juice is available in the juice section of many stores that carry biodynamic products, right next to the standard “carrot” juice.  More marketing with variety names is something that could help expose people to the diversity of crops and help preserve those crops actively within society, like an old story or play. While at Dottenfelder-hof we helped select Rodelika lines for flavor and yield. Getting both flavor and yield simultaneously is one of the more difficult aspects of plant breeding. By the way, the carrot juice is excellent.

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Sativa Rheinau part two: Breeding Projects and More

The folks at Sativa do a lot of work with maintaining and reinvigorating old varieties for PSR. (Pro Specie Rara, the Swiss seed saver’s organization, see next posting). Most of this work focuses on brassicas, which often suffer from inbreeding depressions, leading to sickly plants and poor yields. By the time inbreeding depression is recognized it is often too late: one cannot simply grow out a large population of the line and save seeds, as the genetics have been bottlenecked by previous small populations (e.g. a home gardener saving seed from too few plants). The only glimmer of hope is to locate other lines of the same variety and cross the lines together — and this is exactly what Friedemann, the vegetable breeder at Sativa, is doing.

Sativa Greenhouse Dehybridizing Brussel’s Sprouts Seed Harvester
Greehouse production, Brussels sprout de-hybridization, seed crop harvester.

The prime example of this tragic condition is found in the red Brussels sprout variety known as Rubine, still carried by many seed companies throughout Europe and the United States. Rubine has declined over the past several decades and now often fails to produce anything resembling Brussels sprouts. Friedemann recently acquired Rubine from six different sources throughout Europe, with plans to let them all flower together in the hopes that the different lines will bring enough genetics together to reinvigorate the variety — hopefully to the point of producing healthy plants that will produce large sprouts. If this cannot be achieved, he said he will begin work to develop a new red Brussels sprout variety.

Sativa is also involved in Biodynamic breeding projects of a completely different sort than Ute Kirchgasse and Christina Henatsch (see previous posts). Friedemann came to biodynamic vegetable breeding from quite the opposite direction of Christina and Ute. His training and experience is not Anthroposophical, but rather he worked as a vegetable breeder at Hild, a conventional seed company.

Celariac breeding Celariac phenotype sativa switzerland snow
breeder Friedemann, celeriac inspection, snow at Sativa.

It follows, then, that Friedermann has a different approach. In contrast to most of the Biodynamic community, he doesn’t see any problem with the wise use of F1 hybrids for breeding (unless these hybrids are geneticly engineered CMS hybrids). Friedemann doesn’t create hybrid varieties for sale or distribution, but acquires them from other seed companies and then uses these varieties as breeding material. He believes the organic/biodynamic community should utilize the genetic resources and hard work of the conventional community, just as the large seed compaines use the resources of the open-pollinated community in the creation of their hybrids.

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Sativa Rheinau part one: Swiss Biodynamic Seed Company

From Gerhard and Susanne’s we traveled by train south to Sativa Rheinau, a biodynamic seed company in Switzerland near the border town of Schaffhausen, home to the largest waterfall in Europe. Set in a seventeenth century monastery on an island in the Rheine, Sativa is blessed with being one of the most beautiful places we have happened across in our travels. The seed company at Sativa is part of a larger Biodynamic farm project that integrates 25 handicapped people into the work with animals (dairy and meat), fruits, vineyard, grains, and seed growing and processing tasks.

Falls on the Rhine Sativa HQ Sativa Seeds
falls on the Rhine, Sativa HQ, seed room

Sativa’s main vegetable seed customers are home gardeners, and they work closely with Pro Specie Rara (PSR) to distribute heirloom Swiss varieties. (More about PSR, the Swiss seed savers group, in a later posting). Sativa’s main work with farmers is in their work with seed potatoes and grains, and they sell large quantities of rye, spelt, and wheat to farmers there. Because Switzerland is not part of the EU, they do not have the restrictions of most other countries in regards to the Common Catalog. But this does not mean that they do not have to deal with limitations; as is the case in the US, high quality open-pollinated varieties for market gardeners are either nonexistent or are hard to come by.

Monastery at Sativa monastery and garden wall
Rhine, monastery, garden, gate
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Bingenheimer part two: effects of musical notes on dandelions?

Bingenheimer’s resident plant breeder, Ute Kirchgaesser, is on to something. Really, she’s probably on to many things, but to describe them all would take a book and I only have one blog posting.

Ute has what equates to a master’s degree in horticulture, but her German title sounds much better; Meistergartnerin. She got her start in plant breeding with a family run seed company where she learned the basics of traditional plant breeding, and has combined that knowledge with a more esoteric knowledge of an anthroposophical kind. All of these experiences combine to make her something more like and Ubermeistergarternerin if you ask me. But if you ask her, she is just a vegetable breeder.

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Ute is working on developing a summer fennel. She is in the process of improving some leek varieties, and also is working to re-invigorate some old kales. She is in charge of the on-site seed production for Bingenheimer’s catalog. And she is also working on a project that even she can’t explain.

In 2002, she began to study what effect musical intervals have on plants. Previous studies have been done that show that plants respond well to classical music, and not so well to death metal. Ute wanted to know if a particular sequence of notes effects plants more than another, and she wanted to know if this effect can be seen in subsequent generations. She set up a research project working with some lettuces, which she surmised would show results quickly due to their rapid growth.

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Bingenheimer part one: arival

We left Greifswald for Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the largest biodynamic seed company in Germany, Leaving super extra early on Tuesday morning, we traveled via “Mitfahrgelegenheit” through Berlin and on down to a small town northeast of Frankfurt. “Mitfahrgelegenheit” is the musical word for ‘organized rideshare’, and there are several websites that one can use to post rides wanted or rides offered. People in the US use Craigslist for this purpose, but in Germany the practice is more widespread and therefore more effective. Mitfahrgelegenheit costs about half as much as a train and can get you there twice as fast, and it is a good way to meet people. Since we traveled so far, we pieced together two rides and had a few hours to hang out in Berlin. We were delivered to the door of Bingenheimer, 13 hours after the start of our journey – not really twice as fast as the train but still half the cost!

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We stayed, worked and learned with the kind folks at Bingenheimer for three work days, from Wednesday through Friday. This was our first visit with a seed company, and we learned a lot and had a really good time. Andrew was in heaven being surrounded by so many seeds, and the sense of community there really impressed me. But these are just two of the indicators that Bingenheimer Saatgut AG is not your average seed company. It is primarily Biodynamic. It is the hub for a network of 30 Biodynamic vegetable breeders in Germany. It was once part of and is still affiliated with the Lebensgemeinschaft Bingenheimer, a Camphill-esque community that fully integrates people with developmental disabilities into the tasks of daily life. As such, the Saatgut Werkstatt (seed workshop) is one of five workshops that employ disabled people in the community; they also rotate through candle making, woodworking, ceramics, and weaving workshops. Additionally, some of them work on the biodynamic dairy farm and others in the gardens, helping to grow food for the community and seed for the seed company.

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Plan B… More Hamburg, then Grain

Our plans for Poland on the 9th of December fell through, and so we found ourselves in Hamburg with lots of options but no plans. We did what we could to pursue new seed-related contacts, even recruiting the help of Christina and Juan, but we found last-minute arrangements around the holidays to be somewhat difficult in Germany.

We wound up staying in Hamburg until our December 17th flight to Lithuania, mostly exploring various parts of the city and lying low.

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One of the contacts Christina pursued for us worked out, and so we spent a delightful afternoon with Karl-Josef Muller, the head of the Association for Biodynamic Plant Breeders, and his fellow cereal breeder Martin Timmermann. Karl Joseph has been breeding for high quality grains in low fertility, low-input organic systems since 1986, and has developed and registered a variety of “naked” barley, Lawina, on the EU’s common catalogue. Take a Look at their website “Cereal Breeding Research Darzau” it contains a lot of great information.

We first checked out of some of their “nursery” plots and grow-out fields of fall-planted rye, spelt, einkorn, and barley on neighboring organic and biodynamic farms. Then we returned to the research center to see some of the specialized equipment (including custom tractor and special de-hulling machine), and then retired to their offices for coffee and a long discussion of the methods and whys and wherefores of organic grain breeding.

Karl-Josef told us, “Our aim is to develop new varieties, but it does not end there. It is also to develop new ideas for new varieties and to research and tell others (even the conventional breeders) what we have learned. Because if the idea is developed, sometimes that is enough for now. The market/interest (in organically developed seeds) is very small, but it is not our job to improve this. What is important is to develop new criteria for farming, organic farming, human being, these ideas.”

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It was a wonderful visit, and we left with a few new varieties of grains (Lawina naked barley and a light grain rye), and shared with Martin some of the perennial wheat that we had brought. We also left with our heads full of new ideas and information.

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