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Environment

Bakery venture feeds German appetite for pesticide-free food

There's a booming demand in Germany for produce that is both locally sourced and free from chemicals. The KraichgauKorn cooperative combines the two trends, linking farmers with local millers and artisanal bakers.

Farmer Ulrich Ratzel slides open the metal door of his machinery shed in Linkenheim, a small village in the sunny plains of the Rhine valley in southwestern Germany.

Just inside the doorway sits a long red harrow, which Ratzel has already hooked up to his tractor in preparation for when the sun comes out and dries off his fields.

"I planned on going out today but it bucketed down last night so now I have to wait," says the 50-year-old farmer as a flock of swallows reel noisily around the corner of the shed nearly drowning out his words.

The 12-meter-long (39-foot-long) harrow, which looks like a giant rake, is central to the activities on Ratzel's 240-hectare farm where he grows wheat, rye, corn and malting barley, as well as asparagus.

These are typical crops for the area. But Ratzel isn't a typical farmer. Unlike most of the other farmers here, he doesn't use any chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on his fields.

Farmer Ulrich Ratzel

Farmer Ulrich Ratzel stopped using pesticides on his crops more than 20 years ago, and hasn't looked back

Chemical-free farming

Walking outside the shed, Ratzel points over the flat, wide fields where he has already sowed summer wheat. Instead of controlling weeds by spraying them, he explains, he has to dig them over several times with the harrow. He also plants his crops later so that weeds have already sprouted before he sows. Moreover, Ratzel sows fewer plants per square meter, which reduces the chance of a fungal infestation by allowing more air to flow through the fields.

Compared to conventional farmers in the region, Ratzel's fields yield about 20 to 25 percent less wheat. But he earns about seven euros ($8) more per hundred kilo by selling his wheat through KraichgauKorn, a growers and traders cooperative based in the Kraichgau region in the southwestern state of Baden Württemberg.

Empty sacks of wheat at Ulrich Ratzel's farm

Wheat or 'weizen' is one of Ratzel's main crops

Sick of the pesticide treadmill with its tight timing and high costs, Ratzel and his father joined KraichgauKorn two years after it was founded back in 1990. The cooperative doesn't allow the use of any kind of pesticides or other chemicals on its members' crops and has strict rules about the use of fertilizers, too.

"We were watched closely by other local farmers," he remembers. "In the early stages, we had weeds spread through our fields. They said, 'If you keep going like this, then nothing whatsoever will grow anymore,'" Ratzel explains.

"But it wasn't the case."

A promising partnership

Taking into account the savings from not having to buy pesticides, Ratzel says he's financially slightly better off in the cooperative. Not only does he love being freed from the regime of using chemicals, his fields benefit too.

"Our fields are full of flowers. The violet cornrade is back, we have poppies. It just looks beautiful and that makes me very proud."

The KraichgauKorn cooperative aims to connect Kraichgau farmers with artisanal bakers in the region. It started off with seven farmers and two bakers. Now it's grown to include 35 farmers, three local mills and 41 bakers who use the resulting flour.

One of them is the Neu bakery in Karlsruhe.

Bakers at work in the Neu Bakery in Karlsruhe

Bakers at work preparing the day's breads in Michael Neu's family bakery in Karlsruhe

Pretzels without pesticides

Out the back of the family-run bakery, Michael Neu and two other bakers carefully roll dough into thin sausages before expertly twisting them into pretzel shapes and laying them on baking trays ready for the ovens.

Neu, who took over the business from this father, then scoots over to his dough machine, adding milk to the flour, eggs, butter, lemon and yeast. The dough will be used to make brioche as well as butter crumble cake, raisin bread and currant buns.

The Neu bakery exclusively uses KraichgauKorn flours, such as spelt, rye and wheat, in the breads, pastries and cakes it bakes every day, except Sundays.

"I loved the way [KraichgauKorn] grow and process their grains and that everything is as natural as possible without pesticides," says Neu, adding he also appreciates knowing exactly who he is dealing with.

"I know the farmers, it's a small community here."

Plus, the quality of the flour is exceptional, he says, stretching some dough in his hand to demonstrate the soft elasticity that is the sign of good flour.

Bakers at work in the Neu Bakery in Karlsruhe

Michael Neu shapes the dough into thin sausages to make pretzels - a favorite baked snack in Germany

Worth the dough

The KraichgauKorn flours are about a third more expensive than conventional flours, making the Neu bakery's produce more expensive compared to the competition. And this competition is also increasing - several new bakery chains offering cheap breads and pastries have recently opened on the Karlsruhe high street.

Michael Neu isn't concerned - he sells as much as he can bake, he says, and believes the quality combined with the regional origin of his products tip the scales in his favor.

A pile of dough at Neu Bakery in Karlsruhe

The quality of the flour from chemical-free grain is superior, says Neu

Later in the day, the line of customers winds its way out the doors of the small shop front, spilling onto the cobblestone pavement outside. As Magrit Wagner buys an apple turnover and a sweet roll, she explains she's been a loyal customer here for decades.

"It's more than just about the price," she says. "This is a regional bakery and the pastries and breads are fantastic. Plus it's chemical free and a natural product."

Customer André Lachmund also appreciates that the flour is sourced from close by.

"It's crazy that products you can actually get here end up coming from so far away," he says. "And that's why it's great that it's a different story at this bakery. And I think it's important to support them."

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