by Simone Pedrini
A Dutch, a French and an Irishman walk into a German native seed farm.
That’s quite a good start for a joke based on national stereotypes. But when the Dutch, French and Irishman are followed by the Scottish, Spanish, Danish, German, Italian, English, Swedish, Czech, Polish, Swiss, Austrian and a Portuguese (on crutches) the joke might get a bit out of hand. And they’re not visiting just one farm. They’re on a mission to fit as many native seed companies as possible in a super tight five days schedule across most of Germany, and Switzerland.
This international band of women and men are native seed farmers from all over the continent, that have left their flowering fields in the middle of May, in the height of production season, and gathered in Germany and Switzerland, where farmers like them set their activities aside to welcome them and guide them through their fields and barns.
This was the European Native Seed Producers Convention 2018.
The journey started South of Berlin, in the eastern part of Germany with the visit of a gigantic open pit coal mine, and to areas were mining activities have ceased and renaturation is on its way. Eight years after the intervention was carried out with seeding, hay, green hay and plants, the grassland is thriving and its success is highlighted by the positive reintroduction of the endangered species Dianthus gratianopolitanus .
Then the group moved to the village of Dissen-Striesow, a fascinating community of Slavic heritage, (Sorbian), that settled in this rural part of eastern Germany and Western Poland more than a thousand years ago, and managed to maintain its cultural identity and language. Of the same cultural background is the company Nagola Re, who has recently started native seed production alongside their restoration and environmental consultancy activities. The contagious enthusiasm and genuine passion for wild plants of its manager, Christina Grätz, was in clear display as she proudly walked the international visitors through the brand new facilities and colourful carpets of wild flowers.
The journey then continued south towards Lommatsch in Saxony, where Gert Harz, a conventional broad acre crop farmer, converted his production to native seed. The result is some truly impressive large-scale fields of native grasses and forbs that extend in green, pink, blue and yellow stripes over the rolling hills of the rural Saxony landscape taking one's breath away.
The group then kept moving south visiting the Freundt & Mohr farm in Wirsberg and then to the powerhouse of German native seed producers, Rieger-Hoffman in Blaufelden. The company was the first to start wild seed production 35 years ago and is now the main distribution centre of native seed for the country. The extremely organised seed processing and logistics allow for the separation of seed lots based on origin, so that they can be sold and used in the appropriate regions.
This place was the perfect setting, to begin the discussion with the producers from all over the continent on how to move forward towards the foundation of a "European Native Seed Producers Association". Although each company might face different challenges and the level of development of native seed market among European counties is very heterogeneous, the consensus to join a continent-wide association was unanimous. The impetus for this decision is the shared goal to preserve biodiversity, by producing and providing seed of appropriate origin and quality. Given the local nature of these productions, direct competition among companies is very limited allowing for closer collaboration, knowledge sharing, project partnership, and better representation with all the participants acknowledging that the strength of a united group is greater than the sum of its part.
The voyage then resumed heading southward, to Winterthur, in Switzerland. The group was enthusiastically received by the grassland guru and eclectic native seed producers, farmer, inventor, aviator, nettle enthusiast (.. and more), Johannes Burri. He led the group through the UFA SAMEN facility. UFA is a cooperative of Swiss farmers that deals in all sorts of crop, vegetable, fodder, lawn seeds and has a dedicated department devoted entirely to wild species. Like Germany, Switzerland is divided into different regions of origin, however, not all the species are distributed in the same way. Some species that present quite homogeneous morphological and phenological characteristics are collected, propagated and used in larger areas, while species with diverse regional traits are dealt with in smaller subregions.
Then back to Germany for the last step of this epic journey, in Freising, near Munich, home to the oldest brewery in the world. Johann Krimmer, the main Bavarian native seed producers, led with pride the amazed visitors through its vast production fields, immaculate processing and storing facilities, and super organised logistics, while dispensing wisdom accumulated through decades of experience.
As the remaining participants exchanged their last salutes and best wishes outside the train station, the lingering feeling that something bigger was in the making filled the air. Each one of them carrying a newly acquired wealth of information on how to manage production fields, control weed, harvesting machines and methods, seed processing systems and countless tricks of any step of the process. But more than just that, is the comforting awareness of having colleagues and friends across the continent who understand the problems and struggles of the native seed business and know how (and are willing) to help along the way.
This inspirational journey filled its participants with the motivation to strive for excellence in the production of native seed and awoke the idea that a viable and thriving native seed market is not only possible but in reach, regardless of which country of the continent one is from.