Seeds are cultural assets – not private property

Breeder portrait Arne von Schulz

Arne von Schulz, born 1962, has been promoting bio-dynamic breeding for decades. On the field and in the greenhouse, as a seed propagator, vegetable gardener and breeder, but also on the board of the largest breeding network, Kultursaat e.V., and on the board of bioverita. He spent most of his youth in the Netherlands and shortly after leaving school, he got involved with bio-dynamic agriculture.

He was among the first to take advantage of a then new initiative in Northern Germany, the so-called Free Training, i.e. training to become a bio-dynamic farmer. After a year, he initially switched to training as a special needs teacher. After graduating as a special needs teacher, he later completed his agricultural training on a Demeter farm.

Portrait of Arne von Schulz

Farm community

After completing his training, he and his wife and two other couples looked for a place they could farm together. After an intensive search, they found the Fredeburg Domain in Schleswig-Holstein in 1991, south of Lübeck. “We were a small, tight-knit community that wanted to put a lot of energy into building something new; supported by the conviction that treating nature with respect is the basis of bio-dynamic farming,” as von Schulz recalls. The Demeter farm has been managed as a mixed farm from the very beginning.

Cattle, pigs and chickens are kept on around 165 hectares today, and grain, fodder, potatoes and vegetables are grown for direct marketing via the company’s own farm shop and whole-food retailers. After taking over the farm, von Schultz got into growing vegetables professionally through the “learning by doing” method. Having started out with one hectare, now almost five are dedicated to vegetable growing. In the early days, this part of the farm depended solely on him and a lot of pioneering spirit but these days is run by a large team that plans and grows the vegetables.

Impression of the Fredeburg Domain

Selection of farm varieties

Today von Schulz concentrates on maintenance breeding, seed propagation and in-house breeding projects. Some things are primarily aimed at the farm itself, such as the carrot variety which he has selectively adapted to the local conditions on the domain through selection over many generations. Or the particularly beautiful carrot, which is orange on the outside but has a vivid sunny yellow heart, which he wants to strengthen in the future through selection. Some maintenance breeding projects are commissioned by Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, such as radish and sugarloaf chicory, for example.

“When you hold seed you have grown, harvested, dried and cleaned in your hands, it’s something really precious,” the breeder enthusiastically tells us. The maintenance breeding of exciting varieties that do not have a large market takes up space and is really a labour of love: “If no one reproduces them, then eventually they will disappear. It is an important task to ensure that genetic resources don’t just fade away.”

Carrot with sunny yellow heart

New breeds

One focus of the new breeds is on Brussels sprouts, a crop that has long been dominated by hybrid varieties, and for which there are now hardly any pure line varieties that are worth growing. The breeder is working on a new pure line variety for commercial cultivation, which forms firm, even florets, but requires less care than the old varieties. However, it will take a few years yet before it is ready for the market, says von Schulz. He is also working on savoy cabbage. He has already registered two new varieties via Kultursaat: “Smaragd” (2009) and “Dark Green Putjes” (2021, German: “Dunkelgrüner Putjes”).

At least one other variety is very promising, he says happily: “A winter savoy that grows faster than the old Winterfürst varieties and keeps well. A variety that stays healthy for a really long time and is winter-proof.” He grows up to 2,000 savoy cabbage plants a year for breeding purposes. From these, he selects the specimens that most obviously exhibit the desired properties. Their seeds are harvested for re-sowing in the second year after flowering. The rest of the cabbages go to market.

Savoy Cabbage Dunkelgrüner Putjes

The Path to Breeding

How did he get from growing vegetables to breeding? Looking back, the farmer tells us that “In the early 1990s, conventional companies increasingly began to offer hybrid varieties. It became clear that this was a dependency in the making. That’s why our first concern was to produce our own organic seed,” von Schulz tells us.

At the end of the 1980s, the “Initiative for Bio-dynamic Seeds” was formed, where knowledge about seed propagation was exchanged to begin with. “But we quickly realized that we also need our own varieties. That’s why many of us started with breeding and selection.” In 1993, the vegetable gardener undertook his first own breeding attempts on the domain with savoy cabbage and pumpkins. The founding of Kultursaat e.V.

Seed pods with seeds

Kultursaat is created

The association Kultursaat e.V. grew out of the initiative’s meetings in 1994. It began with an intensive period of engaging with breeding, breeding methods, but above all the plant: “It was a very intense time,” von Schulz looks back. The association now is an umbrella for over 30 breeders in Germany and other German-speaking countries.

The breeder has been at the heart of it since 2011 as one of the five board members. In this role, he deals with of a lot of organizational stuff, works on policy papers and processes and mediates when there are conflicts in the group. “Wherever people work in very close collaboration, it’s important to cultivate the social side and that sometimes includes having to wotk through difficult topics. All in all, it’s very exciting work,” says the breeder, even after twelve years.

Kultursaat e.V. Logo

Close connection between bioverita and Kultursaatat

Many of the vegetables grown by Kultursaat e.V. are certified by bioverita. Since there is a close exchange between the associations, Kultursaat e.V. is a member of bioverita and von Schulz represents the breeders’ association on the bioverita board. “Since Kultursaat represents most of the breeders, it is important for us to help shape bioverita,” explains von Schulz. He emphasizes that the regulations and the permitted breeding methods are largely identical in both associations, e.g. hybrid breeding is fundamentally excluded.

There is also a common understanding that cultivated plants and their seeds are cultural assets and therefore do not “belong” to anyone. They should be available to everyone and not be privatized through patents. “After all, a variety is not developed from scratch by the breeder. The original varieties existed before and are an achievement of many generations before us,” explains von Schulz.

The claim “varieties are cultural assets”

Die The role of bioverita

The breeder also finds the cooperation with bioverita important because it gives organic breeding “a face” in the trade. “By communicating, by labeling the goods and by working together with various market partners, organic breeding and the new varieties are becoming better known,” he sums up.

And that is the prerequisite for organic or bio-dynamic breeding to grow overall and for more sustainable varieties to emerge.

Möhren bei Bodan
Carrots with bioverita labelling

Photo credits: photos 1+6 Kultursaat e.V., photo 4 Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, photo 8 Bodan Großhandel für Naturkost GmbH, rest bioverita