A former coach house is now the reception area and restaurant at Gut Dalwitz, and a colourful graphic entitled “AgriCulture” hangs on the wall, with a biogas plant in the middle. But energy is just one of the important questions on this farm, south-east of Rostock. Landowner Dr Heinrich von Bassewitz is also keen to embrace circular farming, closing the loop on inputs and outputs. The 68-year-old and his team have been cultivating the 700ha of arable land and 400ha of pasture according to the Biopark Cultivation Association’s ecological guidelines since the early 1990s.
“Material and energy cycles are always closely related,” he explains while sitting in his study, where numerous books, magazines and other documents and papers lay stacked on the desk. He is a man who obviously has a lot on his plate, being in charge of 35 employees, 30 of whom manage the tourism enterprise, including horse riding, catering, hotels and other holiday accommodation with a total of 120 beds. The other five manage the agricultural business, which also includes 700ha of forest, and the biogas plant, which Dr von Bassewitz estimates at 1.5 working positions.
Energy-efficient pasture management
Of course, given its size and structure, the company has high energy requirements and therefore costs. “We have almost 8,000m2 of living space that needs to be heated, which uses around 64,000 litres of heating oil”, he exclaims, outlining the problem of ever rising gas, fuel and electricity prices. The electricity bill for the entire operation was €35,000 (£31,023) per year before the start of the war in Ukraine, but he estimates this has now risen to over €50,000 (£44,320).
The days of low energy prices are now gone for good.Dr. Heinrich von Bassewitz
“The days of low energy prices are now gone for good,” states Dr von Bassewitz. His doctoral thesis was on pastoralism, so he’s naturally an outspoken supporter of pastoralism. “Hardly any other type of farming can be operated so energy-efficiently and with so little effort.” In response to criticism from vegan idealists, Dr von Bassewitz, who has been involved in lobbying work for various associations for many years, says unequivocally: “Wherever there are depressions, slopes, marshy or damp locations, cattle and sheep grazing is a must. Who else would benefit from the grass that grows there?”
A large herd of Red Angus beef cattle graze the fields of Gut Dalwitz. The cows calve in the spring, spending the summer together with their calves at grass. In October, the calves are weaned from their mothers in a cacophony of bleats. The team at Gut Dalwitz is assisted by students doing their voluntary ecological year or internships on the farm. In addition to the suckler cows, a herd of Criollos (Uruguayan riding horses) also requires a lot of attention and care, in which young people like Clara from Brandenburg like to be involved.
Why Criollo in the middle of Mecklenburg, Western Pomerania? This history goes back many decades. In the summer of 1945, shortly after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Dr von Bassewitz’s grandfather remained on the estate in the hope of saving something that unfortunately could not be saved. The Soviets nationalised the farm, and the former owner fled to the West. More than 45 years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his grandson, Dr Count Heinrich von Bassewitz (his full name), after many years of agricultural project work abroad, including on the Ivory Coast and Uruguay, came back to the former family property. This was both a huge opportunity and challenge, because the buildings were dilapidated, and the land had been leased out. But Dr von Bassewitz and his Uruguayan wife Lucy were undeterred and embarked on the new adventure.
Arable farming strategy with eight-year crop rotation
In addition to the pastures – Mecklenburg Pampa – for horses and cattle, they have now established a sophisticated arable farming operation. In an electric car refueled at their own charging station on the farm, fed by electricity from the enterprise’s 100kWp solar photovoltaic system, we drive to the field. Although this is not directly related to energy use, Dr von Bassewitz emphasises the need to cultivate clover-grass at the edge of the field. Within an eight-year crop rotation, clover takes up about one fifth of the area. “Clover provides us with nutrients and soil organic matter that we cannot do without,” he says. “It goes into our biogas plant as a substrate, together with solid manure from the cows, pigs and chickens, and after fermentation it is returned to the fields as digestate.”
There is no doubt: The current high fertiliser costs are not causing him any sleepless nights. Another important aspect is the cultivation of catch crops, like the white-flowering oil radish, which cover around 280ha. In autumn 2022 they were looking well, particularly where sweet lupin volunteers, following harvest in August were growing alongside oil radish to form a closed plant cover. “We used to cultivate the stubble and then sow the radishes, but now we save time and money by cultivating and sowing in one pass,” says Dr von Bassewitz. “The catch crop keeps the soil moist, with its roots filtering water down to a depth of 70cm. A reservoir like this is invaluable, from an agricultural point of view, in times of drought.”
In any case, agricultural principles are much more important to him than a short-term cash mentality, even when high commodity markets might tempt less sustainable activities. For him, these principles include the continuous alternation of winter and spring crops, leaf and straw crops, and deep and shallow roots in the wide crop rotation.
So is everything running optimally on the farm, despite the energy crisis? Unfortunately not, as the soaring energy and other input costs mean Dr von Bassewitz has temporarily paused planned investments worth €500,000 (£443,195). For the time being, plans to construct an additional heat pipe from the biogas plant to the holiday accommodation, and a new, larger digestate store, which would enable more precise digestate application, remain shelved. Postponed (hopefully) doesn’t mean abandoned.
Alternative options for producing energy
Apart from these two projects, he is also thinking about bringing wind energy to his forest and is considering installing a large 45MW solar park. Although Dr von Bassewitz isn’t overly enthusiastic about such a project, because it displaces agricultural land, it is still an economical option for the whole estate.
This is why he grumbles about the public’s ignorance of the topic of biogas, especially in times of gas shortages and skyrocketing prices. “It is hard to comprehend why, in this crisis situation, the importance of biogas as a base-load capable, flexible and storable renewable energy for society is not recognised! With rising costs for substrates, biogas prices must therefore also increase, otherwise biogas production is no longer economic, despite all the advantages it offers.”
In the future, another important task for him is to make the tractors’ and other agricultural equipment’s energy requirements more climate-friendly. Diesel is still being ordered once a week. But what will the future hold: Electrical, biomethane or hydrogen power? For now, there are still potential savings in many areas. For example, Dr von Bassewitz recently replaced an 18kW compressor, which takes the exhaust air from the biogas plant to several grain driers, with a new one. “The old model could be only on or off, whereas the new one adapts to the heat requirements, meaning we can now save a lot of energy.” Although many efforts are being made on many levels, he urges politicians and society to prepare for a new era with determination. “The catastrophe will come next winter, at the latest, if we don’t finally develop a plan on how to get away from using fossil fuels in the long term.”