Thomas Kliemt-Rippel won first place and the audience award at the Falling Walls Lab 2012 for his presentation “Breaking the Wall of Sustainable Farming”. He is a biodynamic farmer, advocate for land commons with the Kulturland-Genossenschaft, co-founder of the crowd investment platform OpenCrowdInvest and a lecturer in biodynamic farming education. His current work is focused on creating technical solutions and frameworks for community-funded farming projects. Last year we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his career since his participation in Falling Walls Lab.

Mr. Kliemt-Rippel, let’s start off on a personal note. It’s been eight years since you competed in Falling Walls Lab. Is there a memory that still really stands out to you?

I still remember the moment when I was standing on the big stage and, right in the middle of my presentation, forgot what I wanted to say next. I paused for only two or three seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

If you were back on the Falling Walls Lab stage today, how would you describe the breakthrough potential of your current work?

I continued working on the larger problem of liquid animal manure as a product of modern animal husbandry, and I am still convinced today that next to global climate change this problem poses the most immediate threat to global biodiversity and overall ecological stability on our planet. It is not just a threat to ecosystems though, the Global Burden of Disease Study, a collaboration of over 3600 researchers from 145 countries, attributes up to 800,000 deaths per year globally to ammonia emissions from animal manure.

The problem is entirely solvable – my research, but also many other approaches show this very clearly. The problem is that positive externalities of alternative approaches to manure management are in no way financially rewarded, and farmers are already in a very difficult position financially. They cannot afford to implement these measures, even if the costs are relatively modest.

Prior to completing your training in biodynamic farming, you went to business school, and you have mentioned in talks that you were disillusioned by what you had learned there. This is an experience shared by many people upon leaving higher education for the first time, who then choose to retrain. However, there is little information available for those who might be considering this choice. Could you tell us a little more about your path to your current career?

I grew up with the perception that going to university was the only viable option for my path in life. So, I ended up going to university more or less right out of high school (with a gap year in between) and had little real-life experience, but many lofty ideas. During my BA in economics I was primarily disillusioned with the ontological frame upon which the neoliberal economic model is built, namely that humans are selfish, greedy and unable to enter into fruitful cooperation that benefits the entire community. This contradicted my experiences in life and also my desire to find ways to contribute to a world that is less selfish through alternative business models or institutional approaches. I felt truly desperate. What I was learning seemed utterly empty and meaningless with regard to the question of how I could contribute something positive to the world. I felt like I was learning things that trained me to become a part of the problem rather than the solution. In the midst of a serious personal crisis I decided to stop going to university not knowing what I would do next.

I had a vague idea that I would like to work on a farm, and so as I started to talk to people about this, I ended up being invited to go live and work on an organic farm in Switzerland. That is when, for the first time, I had the feeling my work and my actions were in harmony with my ideals. I felt liberated and fulfilled. I felt happy again. It was this personal sense of fulfilment that led me to decide to do a 4-year full-time vocational training to become a biodynamic farmer. To be very clear, it was a tremendous struggle. I earned very little money and in terms of my knowledge and skills with regards to farming I was starting from scratch. It was humbling to say the least. But it was also unbelievably satisfying. And, ultimately, I found what I consider a very deeply fulfilling purpose in life – building up soil fertility and enabling access to land to those (young) people who wish to be truly good stewards to the soil, plants, animals and also communities around them. It doesn’t matter that I earn relatively little money because I am deeply happy with what I am doing.

Looking at income statistics when making your career choice as a 17-year-old teenager really doesn’t tell you anything about how satisfied you will be with your work and your life. I have come to the conviction that university is not the right path for most people. Unless you have a very clear goal of approaching a career that requires a higher education, I think most young people would be better off doing vocational training or at least working as an apprentice or working as a civil servant for a year or two, and equally importantly finding one or even multiple mentors, and then think about how to acquire the skills you need to fill the role you envision for yourself making a positive contribution to this planet and our society. Once you are clear about that, university might be a good option. But there are many other ways to go.

Your work in organic agriculture led you to become an advocate for the revival of a very old land use concept – the concept of land commons. Could you explain to us how you became interested in commons, and how it would ideally work?

During my 4-year vocational training to become a biodynamic farmer I got to know countless wonderful people who truly connect to the land with their hearts and souls and are taking care of the soil, the plants, the animals and the communities around them. I am deeply grateful that such wonderful people exist. But many of them will never be able to practice agriculture in the way they wish to, because in our current neoliberal economic system land has become a traceable commodity and speculation has driven the price of land so high that no farmer who grows food on his land can afford to buy the land any more.

As I was finishing my vocational training, I started to look for a farm that I could take over and implement sustainable farming practices. After all, I knew that every single day 3 farms in Switzerland and 20 farms in Germany close their gates forever. I was somewhat shocked to find out that it is financially impossible to take over a farm. The average farm in Germany with 60 hectares earns the farmer a net financial yield of €24,000 including subsidies – that is €2,000 per month. After you subtract living costs how much is left? Not much. To buy a 60-hectare farm costs around 2.5 million Euros. Paying just 1% interest rate is more than the entire €24,000 the average farmer is able to earn growing food. This is an absurd situation. In times of negative interest rates, speculators have swooped in and driven up prices in Germany by 300% in the past 12 years. In Poland prices have gone up 600% and in Romania 1,000% since the financial crisis 2007/8. Those speculators don’t care that their net yield is less than 1%, because they speculate on the price itself, which has ranged between 10-20% every year for the past 12 years.

It became more than obvious to me that this has got to stop, which is why I started working for a land commons cooperative, the Kulturland-Genossenschaft. The cooperative provides farms the legal and technical (IT) framework to enable community-funded purchases of agricultural land. The cooperative acts as a stewardship organization – as long as the farms cultivate the land ecologically and the farm engages locally, for example by working as a CSA, working with school children, breeding endangered species, etc., the farm can use the land in perpetuity. The cooperative was founded in 2014 and to date 200 hectares for 17 farms have been purchased and permanently secured.

You are the co-founder of OpenCrowdInvest, a crowd-investing tool specifically for commons projects. How did you come to the conclusion that a tool like this was essential to the success of commons projects?

Most other crowdfunding (especially crowd investing) software/platforms out there charge fees that are too high for commons projects. From my work for the Kulturland-Genossenschaft I saw how powerful it can be when communities pool their money in order to create commons. I was convinced, however, that not just we but other community organizations/commons would be able to generate more impact if they had the technical infrastructure available to facilitate community-capital pooling. So, I found some allies in this cause and we created OpenCrowdInvest.org. We are still working on the software, but it already works very well, and we hope that more community/commons projects will use the software in the future.

Finally, if we were to check in with you eight years from now, what impact would you like to see your work having?

There are a few things I wish to do in the coming decade, and I am hopeful about the possibility of achieving these goals:

  1. Enabling hundreds of (young) enthusiastic farmers to take over farms and become good stewards to the soil, plants, animals and communities around them
  2. Contributing to reforming Germany’s agricultural laws, and possibly laws across the EU, stopping non-agricultural speculators from buying up land
  3. Creating the necessary IT infrastructure to manage community supported farms better, especially creating community currencies
  4. Indirectly, I hope to contribute to the reform of the EU’s agricultural subsidy program (CAP), putting a price on positive and negative externalities – e.g. incentivizing ecological, small-scale farming and de-incentivizing destructive, industrial farming

 

If you are interested in finding out more about theoretical frameworks for land commons, Mr. Kliemt-Rippel recommends the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first female Nobel Laureate in economics

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