Dirk Röse

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.