A citizens’ cooperative wants to promote regional agriculture – without allowing large corporations to take over.
400 happy chickens live with organic farmer Jochen Fritz (right) Photo: A. Jensen
Nowhere in Germany are there more customers for organic food than in Berlin, but most organic products do not come from the region. By selling shares, Regionalwert AG Berlin-Brandenburg wants to change that. Modeled on Freiburg, the company promotes diverse, regional agriculture and is designed so that no large investor can take over the store. The share certificates will be sold starting this week.
The initiator of the citizens’ share company is Timo Kaphengst. A landscape ecologist by training, he used to write scientific studies on what goes wrong in agriculture. One of his topics was land grabbing, i.e. the trend of investors buying up fields and arable land all over the world in order to grow food and energy crops for export or to speculate with the soil.
"I only realized three years ago at an event in Chorin that there is also a race for agricultural land in Brandenburg," the 40-year-old reports. There, a young organic farmer told him that he had started with four hectares but saw no way of getting his hands on more fields. And although the head of the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve has a right of first refusal for land that becomes available, he can’t secure it because of horrendous prices. "That was a key experience for me," Kaphengst reports.
The enterprising man began to do research and discovered that several cooperatives and associations were already dealing with the issue. At the founding meeting of the Netzwerk Flachensicherung, he learned about the Regionalwert AG concept developed by Christian Hib, a Demeter farmer from Freiburg. His farm produces 70 different types of vegetables, makes its own seeds, and a herd of cows is also part of the "farm organism."
But this kind of farming is becoming less and less competitive, because a lot of organic vegetables are now also grown in monocultures. That’s why Hib came up with the idea of uniting the entire value chain from the field to the restaurant under one corporate umbrella and giving people from the surrounding area a share in the risks, but also in the profits, through shares. The Freiburg model has now been working for twelve years and has found several imitators – now also in Berlin-Brandenburg.
Timo Kaphengst, Regionalwert AG
"It won’t be a walk in the park, but we’re optimistic."
In principle, the starting position is good. Berlin is the largest organic market in Germany, and "regional" is also popular with customers. But demand cannot be satisfied. Most fields in Brandenburg grow rapeseed, corn, wheat and barley – much of which goes to the world market as animal feed or is used in biogas plants. Not even 400 hectares of arable land in Brandenburg are cultivated with organic fine vegetables such as lettuce, carrots and kohlrabi, which is barely the size of the Tempelhof field.
Ingo Zasada of the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research has calculated that Berlin could theoretically obtain all the food it needs from a radius of 71 kilometers. Even a complete supply of the 3.5 million inhabitants with organic products from Brandenburg would be possible, if 30 percent of the production were not thrown away before it landed on the plates, as is currently the case.
"We can’t wait for politics, we have to make the agricultural turnaround ourselves," says farmer Jochen Fritz, who organizes the annual "We’re fed up!" demonstration and will manage Regionalwert AG together with Timo Kaphengst starting next week. There are already 200 shareholders: the organic farm Apfeltraum near Muncheberg financed the renovation of a farm building a few years ago with the help of share certificates.
At the last general meeting, the backers decided to rename the company Regionalwert AG Berlin-Brandenburg. Now the two board members hope to collect another 100,000 euros by the end of the year. In the coming years, they are then aiming for several million euros. "It won’t be a walk in the park, but we’re optimistic," says Timo Kaphengst, who also helped establish the Berlin Food Council.
Getting the eggs to Markthalle Neun and other outlets is laborious and time-consuming. That is why Regionalwert AG wants to help bundle such small quantities from different farms.
They want to use the money to strengthen and network small producers and processors. "There are many farms around Berlin that are only a few years old and have big problems getting money," Fritz reports. From the banks’ point of view, their investment needs are too small for a loan officer to even bother. It is also very troublesome for the farms to market their products.
"How does the egg get to Berlin?" is how Fritz sums up the problem of his own farm in Werder. In addition to a herd of water buffalo, he himself has around 400 happy two-tailed chickens. They live in mobile coops – converted construction trailers – and have plenty of run between cherry trees during the day to peck and scratch. Every ten days, Fritz moves the fence so that the animals eat the vegetation evenly and fertilize the soil. Bringing the eggs to Markthalle Neun and other outlets is tedious and time-consuming. That’s why Regionalwert AG wants to help bundle such small quantities from different farms.
"If organic farms have a convincing concept, we want to support them – financially, but also informally," says Fritz. The decisive factor, he says, is that it also fits on a human level. After all, Regionalwert AG is concerned with long-term partnerships. Several enterprises had already announced their desires for a Kaserei, a Mosterei, Huhnermobilen or sheep stables. Also with the purchase of further fields some wish themselves financial assistance.
"We as a citizens’ shareholding company want to change something big together with many people," Fritz sums up – and as the farmer says it, it sounds very down-to-earth. For the part-time farmer and demo organizer, a farm is also a social project. Several school interns have already had a taste of farming with him, and when a fence needs to be built, Fritz can count on the support of volunteers. "It’s about a sense of community and making a difference together.
The two men currently see a willingness to make structural changes not only among the Berlin population, but also in politics. Margit Gottstein, the state secretary responsible for consumer protection, is working with civil society to develop a nutrition strategy by the end of 2018.
In addition, the Senate has set aside money in the budget for a House of Food, which is to take care of good canteen supply. "Regionalwert AG is one cog of many in a large network," says Jochen Fritz. "We are closing the gap in raising money for investments," adds Timo Kaphengst.