Europe’s heirloom grains take root in Romania (organically)

About seven years ago, a group of young, Swiss farmers acquired the land they would need to actualize their dream of running an organic farm – in Romania.  Those 800 hectares would become Bio Farmland, a farm in the village of Firiteaz, Romania, just outside the bustling city of Timisoara.  Bio Farmland specializes in heirloom grains that meet Switzerland’s strict standards for organic labeling.  Switzerland, surrounded by EU member countries but not a member itself, is known for its strict qualifying standards for classifying and labeling organic products.  Its standards are even stricter than those of the EU.  Lukas Kelterborn, development manager with Bio Farmland, said the farm exported 600 tons of grains to Germany and Switzerland this year and hopes to export 800-1,000 next year.  The farm, unable to fill

Lukas Kelterborn

the total orders of some of its buyers with just its own grain production, exports in collaboration with a consortium of other Swiss farmers working in Romania.  He said there were about three or four farms in Romania that have all-Swiss ownership.  The market price for organic, heirloom grains that meet strict Swiss standards can reach up to 5.35 euros per kilo.  “The Swiss have a niche in that area,” Kelterborn said.  Barley comprises about 10 percent of the farm’s exports and goes to Swiss buyers who use the grain for beer production.  The heirloom grain spelt (sometimes called spelta), an old type of wheat grain known for its unique flavor, comprises another 25 percent.  Swiss mills buy the grain to process and sell to bakeries in Switzerland.  Bio Farmland also cultivates emmer, einkorn and rye grains.

The plowless farming production method

Between the farm’s harvest time in June and July, weeds have plenty of time to take root before the next season’s crop is seeded in September and October.  While normal farming methods use a tilling and seeding method, farmers here use a unique, non-traditional method to weed which leaves the different layers of topsoil intact.  “We don’t plow at all,” Kelterborn says.  “We have another machine with sort-of “arrows” at a level of five to seven centimeters which cut the roots of the weeds below the surface.”  After cutting the roots of the weeds, the machine plants the next crop of seeds immediately.  “The grains we want to grow have a growth advantage.”

The first two centimeters of soil have special bacteria with different animals than deeper below the surface.  The next two to three centimeters have a different bacterial makeup, and at ten centimeters the composition of the soil changes yet again. Traditional farming methods use plowing to prepare and weed the soil, but this plowing disturbs the soil up to a

Farmer with a special weeder-seeder machine used in the plowless farming method

depth of some 30 centimeters.  The non-traditional method of weeding and planting gives farmers a new way of interacting with the soil.  “With this system, you keep the stratification,” Kelterborn explains.  “In organic farming you see many crazy people who try different things because with regular farming you do have a lot of problems and you think ‘now how can we do this differently’.'”

Kelterborn, who is originally from Munich but a Swiss citizen, spends 14 days to three weeks in Romania per month, and the rest of his time in Switzerland.  He travels the farm grain warehouses and the farm’s office, set up in an old schoolhouse, on a bicycle with his leather briefcase attached to the bike’s cargo

Farmer with products labeled in Romanian and sold in Romania

rack.   In the farm office building, a little supply room displays farm products that are sold in little organic shops in Romania, including tinctures, flower tisane, spices, salts, salves, specialty mustards, twika (palinka/grappa), and grains, neatly packaged and labeled in Romanian for Romanian customers.   Next year, the farm plans to deliver soybeans for tofu production.