“Everything is huge here”

What did Kenyan organic farmer Margaret Karanja discover when she visited a biodynamic farm in Switzerland? We accompanied Margaret on a tour of the organic operations run by the Fintan Foundation in Rheinau.

By Anna Steindl, Biovision

Warmly wrapped against the cold of a November morning, we turned up at Klosterplatz in Rheinau to meet Martin Graf.  The former Zurich justice director and agronomist is now an independent adviser for the Fintan Foundation and works closely with Martin Ott, the joint founder of Fintan. Fluent in Swahili, Graf welcomes Margaret and the Biovision delegation in her mother tongue. In the 1980s, he spent four years in Tanzania and is still involved in a maize cultivation project in the country. Today, however, he is here to accompany Margaret and answer her questions.

Professional seed production

First off is Noémi Uehlinger, a seed production expert from Sativa who shows Margaret the open fields used for seed production. She also shows Margaret how the containers are filled with seeds as well as the packaging and cleaning units. Margaret wants to know everything and asks heaps of questions: “Why when it is so icy cold do you leave some cabbages in the ground? How do you ensure that the plants survive the winter and form seeds for next year? What happens to the seeds after the harvest”? The professional method of seed production used here is something quite new for Margaret.

  • “Cabbages requires a period of cold if the flowers are to form. This means that unfortunately, you cannot produce seeds for this type of vegetable in Kenya,” explains Noémi.
  • The range of organic seed is huge. Once cleaned, packed and sorted, they are then ready to be sown and propagated by domestic and professional organic gardeners.
  • The seed cleaning unit removes dirt and plant residue from the carrot seeds. Margaret is amazed by the powerful machines.
  • After the carrot seeds have been cleaned, they look really good. “I grow carrots in my vegetable garden as well”, explains Margaret enthusiastically.

First-hand encounter with bio-dynamic farming.

Our next stop is a field of winter wheat being grown at the bio-dynamic school in Rheinau where we join pupils and their teacher for a practical lesson.

  • Has the seed sprouted properly? Are there weeds growing between the small wheat plants? Teacher and pupils inspect the wheat field.
  • Margaret is extremely interested in arable farming in Switzerland. “At home, we cultivate different crops and use a mixed cropping system,” she explains.
  • Martin Graf acts as interpreter and translates the relevant information about wheat cultivation into Swahili. Here he explains the current stage of the tiny plant.
  • “Everything is huge – the fields, the farmyards and the animals,” says Margaret in amazement. At home, Margaret cultivates about 1 hectare of land.

Tour of Gut Rheinau GmbH

Markus Gödel guides us through the vineyard terraces of Gut Rheinau where Fintan offers sheltered employment for people with a disability. “The work has become easier since we created the terraces back in 2000,” explains Markus Gödel. Every year, the vineyard produces some 25,000 bottles of organic white and red wine. Margaret is fascinated and imagines herself completing a practical course in vine growing at Gut Rheinau next year. She wants to learn everything about viticulture.

  • Margaret would like to grow grapes in her garden. Martin Graf advises her to experiment with different varieties.
  • A few grapes remain on the vines after the harvest – we take the opportunity to try them.
  • “The grapes taste very sweet,” says Margaret with relish. She would have been quite happy to have spent the entire day in the vineyard.
  • When buying grapes, it is better to go for organic as conventional grapes are treated intensively with chemical pesticides,” stresses Martin Graf.

Gut Rheinau is a diverse, bio-dynamic farm with a splendid location on a bend of the River Rhine. Margaret learns from one of its staff, Moritz Ehrismann that the farms cultivates 60 different vegetables outdoors, keeps cows and goats, grow cereals and produces fruit and honey. The cows spend the summer on upland pasture in Simmental where their milk is made into fine cheese and butter.

  • Margaret welcomes the fact that the cows are kept in a natural way. The calves are allowed to remain with their mothers. “I have a cow at home,” she explains.
  • The herd of about 150 cows is fed with the farm’s own silage, hay and grass. “I feed my cow with Napier grass and maize,” explains Margaret.
  • After the first frost, the curly kale develops its full aroma and can be harvested. “I plan to grow them in my garden as well,” she explains.
  • The lamb’s lettuce is also new for Margaret as it is not grown in Kenya. In the unheated greenhouse, the small plants are protected from snow and the icy wind.
  • “I feel so good, I am so happy”, says Margaret with a laugh as she looks down from the tractor. The retired teacher is now a passionate organic farmer.
  • In the farm shop, Martin Graf presents Margaret with two bottles of wine from the estate. In addition to fruit and vegetables, customers can buy fresh bread, eggs, sausage, meat and dairy products.

At the end of the tour, Margaret is full of enthusiasm. “I still have so much to learn. The day has given me an opportunity to learn many valuable things about organic farming and seed production,” says the Kenyan with a broad smile. As they say their goodbyes, Martin Graf assures her that the Sativa seed given as a present can be sown in her garden. We are looking forward to the photos and plant stories from Margaret Karanja‘s organic garden.