Alina Strickmann

We’re leading the market forward

Norbert Siebels interviewed by German magazine TASPO

TASPO: Aspects such as sustainability and environmental friendliness are essential and more recent requirements that will make increasing demands on growing media. What is your company doing to satisfy these market needs?

Norbert Siebels: Klasmann-Deilmann is taking a lead for the market on these issues. The sustainability of growing media is becoming more and more important for both retailers and end-customers alike, and this trend will become even more pronounced in the years to come. That’s one of the reasons why we act with foresight and why, quite a few years ago, we adopted sustainability as a binding core criterion for all our corporate activities. Our actions in this regard are documented in our annual Sustainability Report. To take just one aspect, combating climate change: a comprehensive climate footprint resulting in measures to lower emissions is now an integral part of what we do, as are far-reaching measures to restore former extraction areas. We are now also aware of the carbon footprint of our raw materials and products and, in our ongoing optimisation process, we can be guided by these data.

And, by the way, just like us, many nurseries are expecting these issues to gain in importance and are adapting accordingly. For these growers, we have positioned ourselves as the ideal partner and we can work together to meet, even more fully, the wide range of needs under the heading of ‘sustainability in horticulture’, giving substance to a sustainable future.

TASPO: Does horticulture need an even ‘greener product’ for its customers – a ‘clear-conscience product’, if you will? How can substrate manufacturers help here?

Norbert Siebels: No-one has greener products than the horticultural sector, and no industry is more justified in having a clear conscience than commercial horticulture. And this includes Klasmann-Deilmann. Our growing media are high-tech products that can hardly be bettered in terms of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and sustainability. Klasmann-Deilmann will continue to sell peat-based growing media into the future with a clear conscience and will not allow itself – just because of a mistaken concept of sustainability – to take backward steps that benefit no-one.

It is, nevertheless, valid to ask about the ‘substrate of the future’. Tomorrow’s growing media will contain a higher proportion of alternative raw materials such as wood fibre, green-waste compost and coco pith. For one thing, using combinations of different raw materials means we conserve resources. For another, this will enable us to further improve the climate footprint of our substrate blends. For Klasmann-Deilmann, however, it is important to evaluate the use of alternative constituents by their fitness for purpose. If wood fibre, compost and coco fibre provide horticultural benefits, then we will use them – and, if not, we will utilise tried-and-tested raw peat materials. To put it in a nutshell: what goes into a substrate is determined by what ensures successful cultivation. Commercial horticulture will thank us for it, as will retailers and end-customers, who don’t want to compromise when they buy substrates.

TASPO: In which areas is completely peat-free production already feasible, both practically and commercially? And what are its limitations for horticultural practice?

Norbert Siebels: In being divided on this issue, the substrate industry is not doing itself any favours. ‘Peat-free’ is not a silver-bullet solution, but entails additional problems. For example, the operational handling of peat-free substrates is simply not as straightforward as for peat-based growing media. This affects water supply, fertilisation, pH values, heating, and so on. When these additional inputs are included in a company’s climate footprint, the plus points in terms of sustainability disappear. And there are commercial drawbacks: peat-free cultivation needs to be more tightly calculated. However, if a grower is prepared to accept this state of affairs and the greater inherent risk of fluctuating quality, peat-free cultivation is – in principle – possible for certain kinds of plant.

In commercial horticulture, the use of peat-free substrates still remains at the trial stage, and the overall economic situation in the industry as a whole does not exactly encourage experimentation. Peat as a raw material is bound to remain with us for a long time to come, and will remain crucial – for Klasmann-Deilmann and for commercial horticulture.
And there are good reasons for this: peat continues to be synonymous with top quality and reliable growth. No other raw material combines so many horticulturally necessary properties – physical, chemical and biological – as peat. That’s why it does a better job than all other known substrate constituents. Peat is also associated with availability in quantity and reliability of supply. Both German-based and international growers can be reliably supplied only because they work with peat-based growing media. If they wanted to immediately switch to using completely peat-free substrates, most growers could no longer obtain the substrates they needed, because the available alternatives do not even meet the demand in Germany alone.

Klasmann-Deilmann will, however, not commit itself to either ‘peat’ or ‘peat-free’: what counts for us is the right combination of peat and alternative constituents in any given case. Growing media for professional growers are rooted in horticultural needs and are neither politically not ideologically driven products.

TASPO: What will the future bring in terms of peat substitutes?

Norbert Siebels: Initially, the priority will be to fully exploit the potential of the known alternatives. For instance, Klasmann-Deilmann is exploring how to broaden horticultural uses for wood fibre, green-waste compost and coco pith in growing media. Here, one goal is to develop new substrates for new applications and crops, and another is to adjust the relative proportions of ingredients within proven recipes in favour of alternative constituents. In any case, the non-negotiable is that we do not compromise on quality – the substrates of the future must be able to do their job perfectly and reliably.

TASPO: Which direction will trials go in, and which new options will be explored, including Sphagnum farming?

Norbert Siebels: The research projects that you mention on Sphagnum farming, i.e. the cultivation of peat mosses for horticultural purposes, require persistence. We are still in the realms of basic research here, with real-world application still a long way off. And even if Sphagnum farming proves successful one day, this raises a number of other questions likely to remain unanswered for the time being: who can afford to buy or lease farmland on the vast scale required? And would a substrate constituent of this kind be cost-effective?
The fact remains: a comprehensive alternative to peat is not in sight – especially if growing media are to maintain their high current standards both qualitatively and quantitatively.

TASPO: Under the revision of Lower Saxony’s Regional Plan, it is envisaged that almost all priority areas for peat extraction are to be de-allocated. Do you feel it is still possible that the relevant minister will back down?

Norbert Siebels: After opposition from various quarters became too strong, Lower Saxony’s state government announced a revision of the draft Regional Plan. There is, therefore, at least a theoretical chance that the current plans to end peat extraction will be rethought. It is not acceptable that the very land user which, by some distance, generates the lowest emission levels from peatlands – namely the peat industry, which causes only 7% of peat-related emissions – should once again be the scapegoat here. By contrast, the joint approach of horticultural-industry association Industrieverband Gartenbau (IVG) and Lower Saxony’s Association for Nature Conservation (NABU), which the ZVG also supports, is the only forward-looking and financially robust solution that harmonises climate and environmental protection on the one hand and raw-materials extraction on the other. We have consistently indicated that we favour a round-table discussion, and remain willing to take part in talks.

TASPO: What, specifically, will be the consequences of this de-allocation for your company and for your customers?

Norbert Siebels: Should the current plans to discontinue peat production indeed be implemented, however, then I forecast that we will see the end of the peat industry in the region within 20 years – and, with it, the loss of many jobs. As Klasmann-Deilmann has, in recent years, acquired extensive resources of its own in the Baltic states and Ireland, we can nevertheless ensure that our customers will be supplied with growing media. At the same time, however, we will considerably strengthen our activities in the renewable energy and resources sector in order that our German sites can seamlessly switch over their production in the future.