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Marcus Holtkötter: ‘Return to science-based decision-making’ the key to sustaining farm for another 10 generations

Lying near the border with the Netherlands, the Münsterland region of northwest Germany is an area steeped in history and tradition. Famous for its castles (it has more than 100), the landscape is made up of lush, green forests and farmland.  This is the home of Marcus Holtkötter and his young family, whose ancestors have farmed on this land for more than 10 generations. For Marcus, preserving history and running a family business is a passion. His family constructed the farm in the 16th century and has continued to work the land since. When Marcus’ father first took over the farm it was a typical mixed-business with cows, pigs and chickens. The work was mainly physical, and everything had to be done by hand. When Marcus took over the business from his father (who still likes to help out on the farm), he decided to make some changes.  “When I started my training it became clear that we were going to develop the pig business, so we stopped keeping cows and chickens,” says Marcus. “This is how the business slowly developed. We then started to rent additional spaces that other businesses gave up and we further developed our farm.” For all the history and connection with tradition that inspires Marcus, he is very much a 21st century farmer, who has truly embraced present-day technology. For example, his modern tractors now have closed, air-conditioned cabins with no noise on the inside, and plant sprayers are now equipped with GPS tracking systems to spray target areas in precise detail.   “Modern technologies are part of our operations today. It is completely normal for me to use an iPad, which is basically my office. We have special programmes that help us handle things more easily; this also applies to the technology we use on the fields. Today’s tractors cannot be compared with the machinery we used 30 or 40 years ago. We are dealing with high-tech machinery today. A lot has advanced in the generational change between my father and me.” The issue of regulation, of both pesticides and farming procedures, is something that Marcus feels passionately about. He accepts the need for tough regulation and maintaining high standards: that’s how he likes it. He believes that Europe has the highest standards of industry practice in the world, but decisions at national and EU level make things difficult. “If I could make a plea to politicians in Berlin and Brussels, my first would be to return to science-based decision-making. With decisions that affect agriculture and the economy, a scientific basis has to be key. Ideology needs to be left to one side. We need support from political leaders and authorities, and a reliable political roadmap for the future.” EU regulations mean that pesticides are subject to rigorous testing processes and the safety of these products is reviewed on a regular basis. Farmers must comply with Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) guidelines and only use pesticides when necessary. However, despite this thorough process of regulation and review, and despite the fact that farmers implement good practices to protect their health and the environment, pesticides are increasingly under threat of being banned.  Marcus is adamant that a lack of crop protection products would have a significant impact on harvest results. He feels farmers should do more to educate the public about the benefits of crop protection products and about how, contrary to popular opinion, their use benefits consumers.    “If you put crops next to each other and compare: last year we left a patch close to a cycling path without crop protection products, so people could see what happens when I don´t use crop protection. And last year was a rust year; there was an incredible amount of rust on the crops and that´s exactly what the crops looked like. It was completely crippled and brown – it looked terrible. Then it was easy to tell people: ‘Ok, look at this. You have the choice between bread from these healthy crops, or from those diseased crops.’” “We as farmers have to wake up from our inactivity over the last 20 or 30 years and start telling the outside world what we do on the field. We have to face it: we failed to keep the consumer in the loop.” Marcus is eager to pass on his expertise to the next generation of farmers. His children are enjoying farm life and all that it entails. As much as he would like to see his children take over the farm, and as much as they may want to at this young age, Marcus is worried about the future of agriculture and the influence of popular politics on the industry.  “I currently see that the political framework makes our work increasingly difficult. Now politicians want to influence agriculture in ways that make me question how agriculture is going to develop in the next 30 years. With the current trend, I worry that it will become impossible for us as farmers to produce food sustainably. Of course I hope that one of my children will take over the business. That is my wish, and it would be great if they would actively continue it, as real farmers.”