The Thams family farm is located on the island of Pellworm, off the coasts of Germany in the North Sea. It manages 80 ha of land, half of which is for permanent pasture and the other half, for forage and cereals.
Cattle graze on grassland from April to October and are fed hay in winter. Extended crop rotation, solid manure, own straw, red clover and green fodder are combined to improve soil fertility.
The farm was converted to organic in 2018; a transition that may have seemed risky at the time, but has proved to be very strategic, as local organic farmers are now much better off economically.
Yet, for some years now, the Thams family has been diversifying its activity, by reducing its herd of dairy cows, offering on-farm tourism activities, and opening a shop of local and regional products.
Agriculture no longer constitutes the major part of their income, which helped motivate them to embark on a completely new experiment, led primarily by Jan Gonne Thams, 26, son of the family.
After graduating in agriculture, Jan Gonne decided to take over the family farm. One of his main decisions was to start experimenting with organic cereal seed production, from varieties he would collect throughout Europe.
He started his first trial in 2020, with an evolutionary rye population from Sweden and then continued experimenting with another population of wheat from Anders Borgen (Agrologica) and two organic lines from Dottenfelderhof (Germany).
In July 2021, we organised a seminar in Pellworm gathering farmers and breeders and focusing on the possibilities of developing local organic seed production activities. The program included visits to Jan Gonne’s fields to observe and discuss the results of his first growing trials. On this occasion, we asked him a few questions about his commitment and expectations in developing a pioneering local seed production activity.
Seeds4All. You tried a landrace rye variety from Sweden, a wheat population from Denmark and two organic varieties from Hesse on your farm this year. What did you expect and what did you learn?
Jan Gonne Thams. I am interested in developing seeds for organic production. Last year, I already grew the rye from Sweden. I was satisfied and this year I tried two new wheat organic varieties from Dottenfelderhof and a wheat population from Anders Borgen in Denmark.
It is exciting to see how the varieties develop differently. Not everything went 100% as I expected, but now I understand better what is important. It was great that the breeders came all the way here. They have an eye and can assess and advise us on how to improve the local mixtures. If we can start producing cereals and bread from local varieties, it will create added value on which to build the future agricultural development of the island. We have quite productive soils, a lot of wind and sun. These are good conditions for avoiding diseases and achieving good seed quality.
What was also really good was the discussion about how we can get along better with the geese. Anders Borgen thinks we should maybe try Nordic populations from Scandinavia. They are also sown in May and harvested in early September with lots of summer light. That's the time when the geese are gone.
S4A. How was the field visits with growers and farmers?
JGT. It was great. The professionals didn't mince words, including about my beats and the difficulties with mineralisation. This year, April was again very cold and wet. This made germination and emergence difficult. But according to Anders it is possible to improve tillage, row spacing and fertilisation. We have learned a lot.
My professional colleagues from Pellworm who were present at the inspection, especially Jan as a young farmer, speculated with me on how this can work with seed production. It was encouraging to see that I was not alone in this. I expected more criticism, but it was a really good exchange.
S4A. What do you expect from the harvest this year?
JGT. It's hard to say right now. Everything is late this year and there will not be a bumper harvest. A lot will happen before everything is threshed and dry. Anders has discovered the wheat gall midge in the fields, which is not easy to spot. He says it is a real problem in organic farming, as it can reduce yields even in good stands at the last minute.
But I'm optimistic that everything can still turn out well. I like the organic variety Zino that I get from Dottenfelderhof. The rye is not as good this year. But now I'm going to clean and sort out what I harvest myself. Then the large grains will go into the next sowing and the small ones into the mill. The small ones taste much better because the endosperm is proportionally smaller and the large ones give the crop more yield.
S4A. What are your plans for the future?
JGT. Learn from my mistakes and extend the experiments with traditional and organic seed varieties. We will try again with rye, wheat, maybe barley and spelt next year. We have enough animals and solid manure for fertiliser; we have our own straw that others have to fetch specially from the mainland; we have our own farm shop with our own products; and we have holidaymakers. So we are very well positioned. I'm convinced that it's an advantage to be well positioned if you want to do well as a farmer in Pellworm.