Portrait of the Breeder Reinhild Frech-Emmelmann
Reinhild Frech-Emmelmann, one of the founding fathers of breeding for organic commercial vegetable cultivation, grew up in the border triangle of Germany and explains how she got into organic breeding. “As a child, I grew up with the wide variety of plants in my grandparents’ kitchen garden including
vegetables that were still less well known at the time, such as broccoli and chard. We knew them because of our proximity to Switzerland and Alsace.” After finishing school, Frech-Emmelmann first studied biology in Tübingen. Later, during her training as a ceramicist, she dealt intensively with Rudolf Steiner’s literature.
The plant breeder has lived in the small village of St. Leonhard am Hornerwald for 42 years. The village is at an altitude of 500 meters and the Waldviertel is known for its rather harsh climate. When she and her husband bought the small farm in 1979, it was without question to them that they would cultivate the three hectares bio-dynamically. “At that time we were the first and only Demeter farm in the whole area,” she recalls.
Initially still working full-time as a ceramicist, she grew spelt and vegetables for their own use. During this time she began to sew trial drills according to star constellations and trialled out the cultivation of heat-loving crops such as peppers and aubergines, which were still not widely known in the Waldviertel at the time. In the beginning, many trials were necessary to find out which vegetable crops would thrived here.
Seed Care Association, Fructus, Arche Noah
Reinhild Frech-Emmelmann, together with other people from the Demeter working group, quickly recognized the potential of the pure lines varieties that still existed in Austria at that time. Disappointed by the lack of pure line varieties available for organic cultivation, she teamed up with other Austrian organic pioneers to form the “Seed Care Association”. There was also a lively exchange with the “Fructus” association in Styria. The common goal was the preservation of old commercial and local varieties, which had increasingly disappeared from the market and been replaced by hybrid varieties that were not reproducible.
In 1990 they founded the association “Noah’s Ark”, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020. Frech-Emmelmann became a member of the first board but soon set a different focus for her own breeding work as she became increasingly interested in the professional breeding of new varieties and variety development. To this purpose, she visited many companies in Germany to learn from them and worked for three months at Sativa in Switzerland. Her teacher was the air researcher and plant breeder Georg-Wilhelm Schmidt (who died in 2005), who inspired many of her key ideas. A lot has happened since then.
From pioneering company to ReinSaat KG
The bio-dynamic farm now covers around 35 hectares. She no longer manages the farm on her own and instead has a large team of 45 employees who work for ReinSaat. Vegetables, herb and flower seed bearers are grown on five hectares. Around one hectare of the area is under glass. The numerous greenhouses are necessary to extend the season,
to overwinter the seed bearers of individual cultivars and to isolate cross-pollinating cultivars from one another. As Reinhild Frech-Emmelmann recalls: “Sure, it was tough going in the beginning. I had zero capital but the clear vision that with three hectares I could green 300,000 hectares of land. This deep conviction carried me through many difficulties, time and again.”
An Impressive range
The company’s catalog includes 700 pure lines varieties. With many helping hands, 50 new breeds with EU registration have been created to date, 15 more are currently in registration. There are also 80 new breeds that are registered for cultivation under special conditions
(so-called BB varieties), and further registrations are also pending. “The BB registrations are a pragmatic intermediate step to EU registration to see how well a new variety is received and in which locations it does well in”, as Frech-Emmelmann explains.
20 of the new breeds of Reinsaat KG are already bioverita-approved, others are in the review process. At the same time, ReinSaat KG is registered as a maintenance breeder for 15 varieties, 14 are in the accreditation process. Maintenance breeding is the term used to describe the regular reproduction and selection of plants with particularly good properties in order to maintain the typical qualities of this variety. The remainder of the 700 varieties in the
catalog do not have plant variety protection and are in maintenance breeding at ReinSaat. From the beginning, ReinSaat KG has cooperated with organic farms in the typical vegetable growing regions of Austria and traditional seed propagation regions. ReinSaat itself propagates the majority of the varieties on offer. “What we do ourselves is under our control and that means I know how good it is,” explains the entrepreneur and breeder.
The breeding work of Reinsaat KG is financed almost exclusively through the sale of seeds. A large part of the distribution takes place through wholesalers and resellers who market the seed packets to domestic gardeners. Online sales to many European countries and beyond is also an important pillar.
“We noticed that more and more commercial gardeners who want to try something new are now ordering from us.” This is because many varieties are now also proving themselves in commercial vegetable growing.
The love of Mediterranean vegetables
The breeder’s favorites are tomatoes, Swiss chard as well as paprika, peppers and chili and 50 different varieties of these can be found in the catalog. The current bestseller is the ‘Cubo Orange’ variety, an orange pad pepper that is particularly fruity and sweet and has been registered as an EU variety since 2017.
“For this breed, I rated, tasted and measured tons of plants,” recalls Frech-Emmelmann. Like all organic breeders, taste selection is also important to her. The breeding of ‘Cubo Orange’ took place in the greenhouse, but it has since also proven itself in outdoor cultivation on the farm, even in wet years.
Italian leafy vegetables
But Italian leafy vegetables are also an integral part of the breeding program. The chard variety ‘Jessica’ was created in cooperation with a vegetable grower in Eferding in Upper Austria.
This fast growing Swiss chard can be harvested and marketed as a whole. ‘Tre Colori’ is a medium-high, colorful stalked Swiss chard which remains colorful even when cooked. Both new breeds are recognized in the EU.
The abundance for our plates
Other heat-loving varieties have also proven themselves in outdoor cultivation for breeding and propagation. Due to the climatic conditions at 500m above sea level, the varieties are tough and adapt well to other locations. A total of 20 new breeds are currently underway.
These include yellow zucchini, pak choi and other Asian vegetables, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, chard and popcorn. A wide range indeed. You can tell that Frech-Emmelmann’s old vision of creating variety and to enable a high quality food by breeding GMO-free, pure line varieties continues to drive her even today.
Photocredits: ReinSaat KG, Fructus catalogue: ARCHE NOAH (former Samenpflegevereinigung & Fructus)