Large-scale vegetable cultivation, seedling production, breeding and seed propagation are rarely found in the one place. At the Demeter nursery Piluweri in Müllheim near Freiburg, the various areas form an organic unit and complement each another.
During the Breeding Garden Open Day in mid-June 2021, a group of visitors was able to get an idea of the diverse activities of the nursery on site, including bioverita. The day was organized on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the seed fund, which works with the breeder initiative Kultursaat e.V. and also with Piluweri.
On the morning of a hot summer day, we were welcomed with cold drinks, colorful raw vegetable platters and German pretzels under the shade of the trees. Our first taste of some organic varieties, the Tica tomato, the Milan carrot and the Arola cucumber. We were greeted by Annette Tillmanns, Horst Ritter and Richard Specht, who started out by telling us about the company’s history. The company was set up in 1995, founded by the dedicated Demeter gardeners Michael Pickel, Matthias Ludwig, Horst Ritter and Richard Specht. “What unites us and drives us is the conviction that we want to work bio-dynamically,” explained the two founders present.
The nursery has grown massively since then. “We would never have dreamed of that at the beginning,” Horst Ritter told us with a laugh, today mainly responsible for the management of the company. The demand for high quality regional organic vegetables has increased year after year. The ten employees the company had initially have since grown to 70. They cultivate 40 hectares outdoors and around 10,000 square meters in greenhouses, and grow a wide range of vegetables and herbs all year round for marketing via the delivery service “Piluweri delivers”, their own farm sales and also the (wholesale) organic food trade.
Commitment to a rich soil life
“From the very beginning we have been concerned with the question of how we can sustainably improve soil life and we have tried out a lot of things,” explained Ritter. Tilling the soil without a plow and producing your own compost are now a matter of course on the farm. In order to enhance the compost with manure, some cattle have been part of the farm for several years.
One employee is solely responsible for the production and distribution of the compost, which is sign enough of how important compost is on the farm. Later on, with Specht explaining the plants’ special clover-grass silage, standing in the greenhouse between long, lush rows of tomato plants , it became clear how much work and know-how is involved in caring for the soil and plants.
Experiments with diversity
During a wonderful lunch, prepared by energetic kitchen goddesses, we had a chance to try a number of the farm’s own vegetables. We learn that Piluweri grows the seedlings for its own needs. “This means that we are independent when it comes to choosing the variety and can experiment with diversity instead of just growing what’s on offer in the catalog,” as Specht explained.
Especially cultivation of new varieties would be difficult without doing your own breeding because this allows you to pursue breeding lines which may not be worth marketing on a large scale but which taste good and could be the basis for further breeding. An example of how professional cultivation and breeding go hand in hand at Piluweri.
The initial spark
Specht told that he was part of the first meeting of the Kultursaat e.V. network in 1998. Inspired by the charismatic breeding pioneers, he and his colleagues then began their own breeding work without hesitation. “There was a great deal of urgency, we had to do something!” he recalled. Even back then, it was almost impossible for commercial growers to avoid hybrid varieties and today, cultivation of many crops almost exclusively relies on hybrids alone and pure line varieties are scarce.
Plenty of motivation to maintain and further develop pure line varieties that have proven themselves in organic farming – for one’s own cultivation and of course for other commercial growers. “Against the background of the increasing influence of genetic engineering in conventional breeding, this work has become even more urgent,” Specht, breeder and head of the greenhouse, emphasized.
bioverita certified varieties
It is all the more gratifying that a number of new varieties have already emerged from the long-standing commitment of Piluweri and Kultursaat: in addition to the tomato varieties Pilu and Tica, the salads Briweri, Piro and Zulu, the leek Avano, the carrot Nantaise 2 / Milan, the pepper Pantos and the aubergine Zora –
all are bioverita-approved. They are registered with the Federal Plant Variety Office and are suitable for commercial cultivation. Piluweri grows – and sells – most of these varieties each year. Nevertheless, breeding continues, for example for cocktail tomatoes, rocket and herbs.
Breeding and professional cultivation – a fruitful coexistence
A new rocket variety from Annette Tillmanns is being registered at the Federal Plant Variety Office. While visiting the salad and herb greenhouses, the grower, who has trained as a breeder at Kultursaat, told us that the parallel work of breeding and cultivation at Piluweri is very fruitful:
“Every day in professional cultivation we experience the requirements in terms of harvestability, plant health, appearance, shelf life, taste and so on”, as Tillmanns explained. This knowledge flows directly into the breeding work. At the same time, promising lines from breeding for sale can be tried out.
By then the sun was beating down from the sky, only the large umbrellas of the seed fund provided a little shade during our tour of the fields. We learned that Piluweri carries out maintenance breeding for several of its own varieties. For example, we saw the seed heads of the winter leek Avano out in the fields, bred by Horst Ritter.
In mid-June it approaches full bloom and the harvest will take place at the beginning of September. It should result in 20-30 kg of leek seeds. One over, calendula, coriander and cornflowers are being propagated, with their seeds going to the Bingenheimer Saatgut AG and Sativa Rheinau AG. One greenhouse is reserved for propagation of the Arola cucumber by cultivator Christine Nagel.
Organic breeding as a communication task
Breeding and seed production play a major role in the company philosophy but this is not a financially lucrative activity, as Ritter and Specht told us. It’s also a challenge to explain organic breeding to the consumer and the added value of varieties from organic breeding while running the business.
This mostly happens during farm tours when there is a chance for an in-depth conversation – like during the Open Day, with the support of bioverita. Several of the participants then told us that they had previously been unaware of how important the question of the origin of the seeds in our food is. So there is still a lot of educational work to be done!
Comprehensive biodynamic work
For our hosts, breeding and seed production are part of their extensive bio-dynamic work. Since the outset, the founders have always been keen to pass on their philosophy and extensive knowledge to their employees and trainees.
If they could wish for one thing, it would be for young and motivated people to continue running the business with all its facets in the near future.
Inspired by the many impressions, information and culinary delights, we bade goodbye to our hosts after day rich in experiences. We carry their vision within us and from now on will tell everyone how worthwhile a visit to Piluweri is!
If you have been inspired to visit Piluweri, here’s a little video for you (in German):