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Harald Pinter- An Austrian formula for efficient organic farming

Interview by Erminia Ciarleglio, DLG

Streamlining the wide crop rotations traditional in organic farming and introducing 20-species cover crops has increased efficiency and fertility on Harald Pinter’s farm. In fact, this long-time DLG member from Austria has pared the rotation on his 86 ha Burgenland arable enterprise down to two main crops: legumes followed by cereals.

There’s no ploughing involved either. Such simplified management reduces labour requirements – important because Harald Pinter is usually the only worker on his fields. Despite the reduced rotation, fertility remains high, as does soil humus content.

Harald Pinter, please tell us why you are so attracted to organic management principles.

First of all, I feel that agriculture in general must take steps towards more ecologically based farm and food production. It’s very clear that consumers all over the world need more food and want it responsibly produced in ecological terms. If farming does not respond to this demand voluntarily then the requirements could be forcibly introduced by politics and the public within the next ten years.

Could you tell us about your start in farming?

Our farm near Schattendorf in Burgenland has been in the family for generations. When I took over full time from my father in 1983, it was a mixed enterprise with cattle and a range of crops. Right from the start, I stopped ploughing in favour of non-inversion cultivations. By 1990 the farm was completely arable and, 16 years later, all crop production was under organic rules. Because I run mainly a one-man business, there’s little time for direct marketing. I currently sell my harvests to two organic crop dealers.

How did your current slimmed down rotation develop?

The trouble with a wider variety of crops was that the resultant smaller tonnages of different products did not make marketing any easier. My reaction was to reduce the rotation until, by around 2018, I had established the current management system. This starts with a legume crop, mainly soybeans nowadays. The following crop is a cereal: winter wheat, winter barley, emmer or einkorn and these are undersown with catch crops so there’s continuous cover right through to spring cultivations. Such a system meets the fundamental requirements of a good rotation: alternating winter and spring sown crops and each straw crop followed by a leaf crop. As far as cultivations are concerned, at least one deep (20 cm) pass per year with the grubber is crucial. This is necessary to control “root” weeds such as couch grass, thistles and creeping buttercup, etc.

What are the present challenges of farming organically in Austria and how do you meet these?

Well, we are now definitely experiencing problematic climate change in the east of the country. You could say we are already clearly over the 2°C mark here, with accompanying spring droughts and very dry winds. Total precipitation is lower than in the past and concentrated during the winter months. Under such conditions, only appropriate humus levels in the soil can retain moisture during the growing season. Humus creation is crucial. Cultivations must be minimised to maintain the organic matter levels achieved. Helping in this aim is continual greening with catch crops undersown - or drilled in a single post-harvest pass - with resultant cover left undisturbed right through the winter until around April 10. Biodiversity is important in such catch crops, I believe. This is why I aim for 20 different plant species in my green cover.

It’s almost 20 years since you joined the DLG. What attracts you most to this international organisation?

Figuratively speaking, it helps me “look over the hedgerows” to see what our neighbours are up to! In this respect, the DLG is a useful and profitable platform, allowing comparisons and benchmarking and discussions with other farmers. Important performance figures are also often available via the DLG: one reason why I’ll almost certainly be attending its Agritechnica event in Hanover 2022!