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A Visit To Dottenfelder Hof

by Mike Pembry for BD newsletter and EFAO news

Most of us have some sort of dream about the type of farm and community we would like to build. Well, I was privileged to get a glimpse of my dream in reality. My wife Becky, and I were in Germany on business in October and had the opportunity to visit Dottenfelder Hof, a bio-dynamic community just 15 km from the centre of Frankfurt.

Michael Schmidt had advised me to try to see the farm, and he'd given me their phone number. I was hoping to talk with Manfred Klett, the founder of this farm, because I had just attended his lecture at the Toronto Waldorf School. Unfortunately, he was still in North America and the person who spoke with me on the phone spoke no English. Amazingly, my cassette learned German was enough to tell her that I wanted to visit the farm. She offered to have someone pick us up at the Bad Vielvel station - in a white Mercedes, of course, although I believe this car was also used to transport livestock in the back seat.

When we arrived there, we were taken to the home of Kees (pronounce Case) Vellenga. He and his family originally came from Holland, but he spoke German and English.

Almost like summer

It was mid October and they were busy harvesting fodder beet for the cattle. The grass was still fresh and growthy and the 80 milking Friesians and followers were still getting lots of pasture. Some of this was harvested and fed in the barn and some grazed directly by the cows.

They try to keep their cows off the pasture for part of the day, even in summer, in order to harvest the manure-one of their  most valuable products. A small portion of the manure is composted for use on pasture land, but the pack in the barns is left there and spread directly on cropland in July. It is treated with the preparations every six weeks while still in the barn Once in the field, it is worked into the soil and a green manure crop planted. They feel they get the maximum benefit from it this way.

The weather there was just like the beautiful fall we had in Ontario. There were frosts at night, but the flowers there didn't seem to notice.

In an old monastery

The farm is really an old monastery which had been established back in 968. Many of the presently used buildings were built at that time. Others of similar design have been added over the centuries. It's like a magical little German village with blooming flower boxes in every window. Eighty people live there, most of them belonging to the nine families which run the farm and stores. There are also students who are there to study anthroposophy and bio-dynamic agriculture.

Direct to consumer

They run two stores, one to sell all the dairy products and the other for vegetables, eggs, bread etc. A new cheese house was being constructed because they said the customers like to see the cheese being made when they pick up their supplies. All dairy products are made from fresh raw milk The law allows them to sell it that way as long as they advise their customers that they should cook it. Nobody does, and there have been no reported problems.

The bakery is really interesting. Huge ovens are fueled with wood that is free for the cutting from the local forestry lands. Few people in this part of Germany use firewood and so the ministry is glad to have someone take what they have culled. The ovens are brick and when they are hot enough the fire is put out and the loaves baked.

Dry-land farming

I was surprised by the short rotation. Alfalfa is only left in two years before it's plowed up. They like the fine stems of the young plants. Clover is the best-liked forage and under this quick turnover they say that quack (twitch) grass is no problem. However, the deep rooted perennial thistle is. I was told that this weed only disappears in the alfalfa crop because of the rapid growth of this forage crop. One hates to question methods in another country, but I wondered whether this was telling them that they had compaction and that the soil didn't need the thistle to break this up when alfalfa was growing.

I would imagine compaction occurs quite often because they are so intent on saving soil moisture and they use heavy machines to get the cultivations done quickly. Kees told me that they now get less than 60 cm of rain a year and most of that in the winter. He said if they don't get their oats in the ground by mid March then the crop is not worth planting. Since the climate there has changed to hot dry summers, they often have spring grains ripening before winter sown grains. Cultivations are done as quickly as possible with multi-purpose machines and following seeding, the soil is quickly packed to save moisture.

Yields are good. Not quite as high as local conventional farmers but still better than anything we get and with costs much lower than the conventional farmers. Wheat can run around 4.5 tonnes per hectare and barley as high as 6-7 tonnes and even up to 7.2 tonnes this year.

A joyous community

The day we were there, there was a baptism and we were invited to the celebration meal. It was tea and cakes, but such cakes! The most impressive part was the opening prayer which the community sang in beautiful harmony with everyone from toddlers to seniors joining in. It was marvelous.

Copyright 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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