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.
In 2021, after graduating in agriculture, Jan Gonne decided to take over the family farm. One of his main decisions was to start experimenting with his own organic cereal seeds, from varieties he would collect throughout Europe.
He had already started in 2020 his first trial 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, the Seeds4All coordination team organised an international meeting in Pellworm with several cereal farmers and breeders, focusing on the possibilities of developing local organic seed production activities. The program inclmuded 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 with that 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 was as one might wish, but I now understand much more what is important. It was great that the breeders came all the way here. They have an eye for what is happening and cas assess and advise us on how to improve the local mixtures. If we can also get a start on local cereals and bread in this way, it will create new value that will stay with us. 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. That was top. The professionals didn't mince words, also about my beats and the difficulties with mineralisation. April was still very cold this year and there was a lot of wetness. This has made germination and emergence difficult. But I can also improve my tillage and row spacing, says Anders, together with fertilization. We have really 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 it can work with seed production. It was encouraging to see that I am not alone in this. I has expected more criticism, but it really was a 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 stands, which would otherwise not be easily seen. 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 am optimistic, everything can still turn out well. I like the organic variety Zino I get from the Dottenfelderhof. The rye is not quite as good this year. But I will now clean and sort what I harvest myself. Then the large grains will go into the next sowing and the small ones into the mill. The small ones have a much better taste because the endosperm is proportionally smaller and the large ones yield more in cultivation.
S4A. What are your plans for the future?
JGT. To learn from my mistakes and do new trials with landrace and organic seeds. We will do new trials with rye, wheat, maybe barley and spelt next year. We have enough animals and solid manure for fertilizers; we have our own straw that others here have to fetch specially from the mainland; we have our farm shop with our own products; and we have holiday guests. So we are quite broadly positioned. I am convinced that it is an advantage to be broadly positioned If you want to manage as a farmer in Pellworm.