- Author: Mark Bolda
This is a fascinating video attached below about strawberry culture in Germany, and for the strawberry ag junkie a real find.
German domestic strawberry production is large, and with 9300 Ha (23,250 acres) it is substantially larger than France with 4000 Ha, Morocco with 2500 Ha (only 25% fresh) and even Spain with 8000 Ha. I think it's good to understand it better, for as you will see if you take the time to watch the video, German strawberry culture is substantially different to what we have going here.
The name of the game for domestic producers in that country is about earliness and flavor, which creates its own controversies and challenges for the growers as you will see in the video. There is also an edge to producing domestically, which many consumers attest are fresher, taste better and all around more preferable, than the strawberries coming in from Spain, Italy and Morocco, which while available year round are not as tasty and, in the words of a state licensed food chemist interviewed (minute 33:12) farmed "under dubious conditions".
Prices for berries sold directly in the market have a large span in prices, for example berries out of Spain in mid-May (which might be a bit past their prime, according to the food chemist interviewed) go for 2.2 € per 500 g, at the same time that German first picked organic ("biological") is garnering a "proud price" of 8,8 € for the same quantity.
I'm afraid it's all in German, but what I'll do then is give summaries of the highlights for which I give the time point in the video so you can at least see it and understand a bit of what is going on.
Breeding. A short summary of a breeding program which is the source of 70% of the varieties grown in Germany run by the "Godfather of Millions of Strawberries", Stefan Kraege, takes place from around minutes 1:07 to 5:30 on the video. We see a nice demonstration of how a cross is done, with removal of the male parts (he calls it castration) from the mother flower followed by a dusting with pollen from another strawberry plant.
A portion of the outside of the fruit resulting from the cross is removed, set out to dry and the "nutlets" (achenes) are removed for growing out in a special house on the property of Dr. Kraege's company. Currently some 10 varieties are being grown out and under close observation for the usual characteristics such as yield and flower bearing.
You notice the size of the fruits is rather small, but it is flavor apparently that they are after. We see a short piece of Dr. Kraeger tasting some of his work (he does a lot of tasting, eats between 10 to 12,000 berries a year), he says it's a little bit like tasting wine; too he states that one needs to watch one's mood at the time of tasting, a foul temper is good since it will mean more rejection and disposal which according to him is really what the successful breeder needs to step into.
Growing berries at scale. We can see how one of the larger strawberry farms - 230 Ha, of which 30 are under the plastic tunnels - is run for starters from 5:30 to 9:30. The theme of earliness for the domestic German market is really underlined by the situation of grower Enno Glantz (age 74), who in the peak of his five month season aims to harvest 30 metric tons per day out of his 230 Ha farm area. Nevertheless, he, as do the other growers interviewed later on, goes through some nail-biting about frost, and we see him in earnest conversation on the phone with the weather service to see whether or not there will be frost that evening. As you all know, frost generally does not harm the plant, but it does kill the early flowers which are the mainstay for the German domestic producer. If there is danger of frost, the "fleece" (maybe someone can tell me what this is?) covers go over the plants for evening and then removed early the next day; the covers also accelerate harvest by about 10 days at this time of year. The weather seems to be less predictable than before, something Herr Glantz attributes to climate change.
The fleece coverings are only used for eight weeks, starting in the beginning of March, for protection and earliness, and then they come off for good. Once the leaves kick in, there is no more need to cover.
Just like in California, they are using black bed mulch, although the purpose is to keep vermin out, along with weed suppression and keeping fruit clean by avoiding contact with the soil.
At minute 21:30, we hear from Herr Glantz as he describes how he operates a direct market system he developed over the past thirty years consisting of 260 “strawberry huts” that can be loaded on to trucks and taken to points across the country – maybe some of you who have traveled to the northern parts of Germany have even seen them.
At minute 27:30, we are shown harvest, which is taking place under the plastic tunnels, in one of the two sites in the area of Wismar (you can see the bay right in the background) where they are located. These tunnels give him the two weeks earlier than the rest of the market, and for which customers are willing to pay more, a lot more actually.
Picking on the farm starts at 5 am, I think we are looking at a day in early May. You can see it is already light in the video, remember Wismar is at approximately 54o latitude, substantially further north than say for example Watsonville, which is at approximately 37o of latitude, and subsequently mornings are light way earlier. It really is the beginning of the season, since the day we are shown already wraps up at 9 am. At full season he has up to 1000 people working on his farms, most of them come from Poland or Ukraine and apparently seasonal workers only. Earnings for picking are minimum 9,19 € per hour, but there is an incentive given, and some 70% of the workers make more than the minimum, with some even making 20 € per hour. Again, wage differentials in other countries matter in bringing people to labor in Germany, we are given that in Ukraine people only make 3 € per hour for similar work.
It isn't clarified by the narration, but it appears that a meal is included as part of the payment, since the workers are lining up to receive a sandwich (ok, a brötchen), a hot drink and no money is changing hands.
Finally at 32 minutes we are shown transport and delivery into a cooler. Cooling of the fruit after harvest only takes place for a few hours, before they are moved on to the market. We are told this is because the fruit loses its flavor and aroma by the hour.
Covered berry culture and controversy. At minute 9:30, we are introduced to two strawberry growers, Dirk Hadenfedlt and Randolf Bockhop, who farm next to one another. Randolf, who covers half of his 42 Ha (104 acres) is pushing into the tunnels too much according to his neighbor Dirk, who is seen picking up picking up big bits of bed mulch which have blown in from what he claims is across the way, and then later climbs up into a deer stand to look at the vast complex of tunnels that his neighbor Randolf has constructed. Certainly, the tunnels are useful concedes Dirk, for sure to protect against frost, and also, together with the black mulch on the tabletops, promote the all important earliness and he gets berries even in April. But Dirk asks, maybe rhetorically for effect, where does the expansion of tunnel construction all stop? 20, 40, 100 even 500 hectares (1200 acres)? Maybe we just cover the whole village? What is our responsibility to the environment here, to our neighborhood and our friends? Might need to lay on the brakes, exhorts Herr Hadenfeldt.
We are informed by the narrator that the local authorities investigating the case.
For those who think this questions about the tunnels is something only happening in a foreign land far away from here, should be reminded that this is not the case and many complaints are heard about the same in our own Santa Cruz County itself - talk about wrecking the "viewshed", impeding water absorption and so on. It's a big deal and to which we in the agricultural realm should pay attention.
Biohof Brucksfelde; organic production. Here at minute 15 we are introduced to Rolf Winter, who heads the 450 hectare farm, of which 10 hectares (24 acre) are in strawberry, outside of Hamburg which is committed to operating under the biological principles of the "Bioland Standard" (I'm assuming biological principles mean organic and so will use the two interchangeably). Key is no chemical use, in particular Rolf remarked no herbicides are put into use here, meaning of course machine cultivation or hand-weeding, some of which is shown in the video. They have an intensive focus on the soil to maintain its viability, and also forsake tunnels given their plastic make-up and expense, he remarks this way customers can buy berries as nature meant them to be. Nevertheless, up to a third of the farm does deploy the fleece ground covers to protect against frost which can wipe out his entire crop, but he still experiences a substantial delay in production and his berries come to market well after many other domestic producers.
Minute 23:30. They also keep bees, twelve hives for 10 hectares (24 acres, so 2 hives per acre- a lot) of berries, given that according to research done at the University of Göttingen pollination by honeybees results in redder, more firm strawberries as compared to simply wind pollinated.
Land is rotated away from berries for seven years, this is in contrast to conventional berry production where land is only rested away from berries for three to four years. I am thinking that pre-plant soil fumigation is not something for Germany, we are certainly not shown any, and given the fact that Herr Glantz, one of the largest strawberry growers in Germany, doesn't use it means it doesn't exist in that country. Lengthy rotations away from strawberry must be the way they manage their soil pathogen populations.
At minute 41:40, we get to see straw distribution on the farm between the strawberry rows as production gets underway, this to prevent contact with the soil and subsequent rot according to Herr Winter.
So why did Rolf become a “biological farmer”? His response is straightforward, he sees the impact agriculture has on the landscape, the loss in biodiversity, the excess use of fertilizer and in turn it makes him want to work with nature, which grants us abundance, rather than find ourselves fighting against it. He is happy to have made with the decision he has made, but still does remark later on that he sees an uptick in the severity of weather events, in particular sometimes drier and wetter than before, forcing him to adjust his work.
Strawberry plant (Nursery) production: At minute 17:30 we are introduced to Markus Staden, who runs something akin to a nursery operation and ships some 100 million strawberry plants across Europe to both commercial and hobby growers (who are mostly served by fresh plants grown in a greenhouse). It's interesting to note that he produces the plants in Telgte in the region around Münster, which is south of all the production fields we have seen so far in the video; I checked the average temperatures there and the range in November and December is between 34 and 47 degrees F and then between 31 and 40 degrees F in January and February. As you can see the plants are dug green before onset of flowering (and by hand, the price per plant must through the roof); he points out that plants with big crowns and abundant root growth are what is sought by his customers, since it imbues the plant with maximale Kraft (maximum force) and is understood to yield the most.
After harvest, plants are shipped and within ten weeks could be expected to be fruiting. I'm not seeing a lot of extra storage to accumulate chill or anything like that. Just calculating backwards, since we have been told that initial fruiting is in April and May, that would mean the digging of the plants is taking place right around January and February.
Markus is also responsible for finding new varieties from all corners of the globe, in fact since most of his selection is based on flavor he is seen as the “taster for the nation”, so if he likes a variety, Germans will also end up eating it too. His tasting system is straightforward, a 1 being something his own swine wouldn't eat (Markus confesses that yes these varieties exist) to a nine which is a berry which he would never stop eating. All told, he's eating 2.5 kg of fruit a day, that's 5.5 lbs!
I hope this video and the accompanying interpretation I've written down here (which took many of hours of the weekend to do, but it's a labor of love, I really really enjoyed doing it), is interesting and useful to at least a few of you.
There is a saying in German, "andere Leute, andere Sitten" (other people, other customs) that I think describes the interest of this video. It is clear that German strawberry culture is quite a bit different than what we have going here, but hopefully you come to understand that the conditions and markets there are different, and thus make it so the paths to success are different as well.