In the Waldviertel, Martin Allram grows ancient grains, biodynamically, following the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. It’s hard work, but the only way for this friend of the earth.
It’s not making me rich, but I’m self-sufficient and independent, says Martin Allram. We’re sitting together with him in the shade in front of a house that’s not exactly beautiful and are looking out into the truly impressive expanse of the Waldviertel. The house was probably put up here at the edge of Merkenbrecht in the 1990s, and it doesn’t need to be beautiful: to be useful is quite enough. Martin Allram bought it together with the adjoining fields and rebuilt it as a shed for everything he needs alongside his grain farming. It acts as a store, the former garage is used for grinding flour, there’s a large table for discussions, and the small kitchen contains an espresso machine – very impor-tant! If necessary he could even sleep here, says Martin Allram, and we can imagine that that may happen quite often.
Just now we’re sitting on a few rickety chairs in the shade, and like everybody else we’re talking about the unusual heat. It rarely goes above 25 degrees centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit) here, says Martin, but in the last few weeks it’s often been around 30 (86). So this year he will also be finished with the harvest two weeks earlier. The only reason we can sit here so relaxed on this August morning is because he only sets off with his combine harvester at noon, when the dew on the grains has more or less dried off.
Martin Allram turned 50 this year, and he has decided to scale everything back a bit, to leave aside all those distractions that get in the way when you’re a passionate farmer interested in the good, the genuine, the real. Essentially he wants to con-centrate in future on the cultivation of old types of grain following the principles of the Demeter system. He’s already produced noodles as well as baked healthy cookies, all with enthusiasm and full dedication. Eventually you spread yourself too thin, says Martin Allam as he fixes on a vanishing point somewhere out there in the endless landscape, and now it’s time to make time for my-self, too.
Already his grandfather predicted that he’d be a farmer one day, a man who himself ran a small farm out here in the Waldviertel. He died when Martin was seven, and at first there were no signs whatsoever of the boy ending up in agriculture. He left the peace and quiet of the countryside behind and immersed himself in the big city. A few years later, after several jobs in Vienna’s gastronomy industry, he returned home to care for his sick grandmother. She had a teeny-weeny farm measuring seven hectares (17 acres), says Martin, and since he was here already, he signed a lease with his grandma and began to do a little cultivating. He spent a year and a half looking after his grandma, and when her life was over he ended up back in Vienna. Here he took a diploma in life coaching and social counselling, but at the weekends he would return to the Waldviertel and looked after his farm, which he had changed to a biodynamic set-up. This follows Demeter, the oldest form of organic farming which goes back to the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. The latter gave a lecture in Breslau in 1924 to 60 selected farmers, who had to commit to reading a rather thick tome before they could apply the practice.
That was hard work, says Martin and grins. Of course he also ploughed through Steiner’s philosophy, and as subjects are constantly overlapping with each oth-er, it’s difficult to provide the lay-person with a succinct summary. Following Goethe, Rudolf Steiner thought holistically, says Martin, and tried to present everything that is going on in the cosmos, in the air, in the water and on earth in a way that is appropriate for the farmer. For instance, yarrow, nettle and dandelion are used for composting, and the horns of cows are filled with cow dung, buried at the winter solstice and unearthed again in March. This may sound esoteric, but it is simply nothing other than regenerating the ground, the earth.
They’re preventative measures for keeping the earth in order, that is, to provide the ground with natural materials using natural methods. The earth, says Martin Allram, with the serious expression of someone living up to his convictions, the earth is the immune system of agriculture. You could compare it with the gut: if that’s healthy, the person is healthy, too.
According to Steiner, whenever there’s an intervention in a natural system, as a consequence there’s disturbances that we hadn’t reckoned with. Much damage had already been done by the end of the last century, and it has multiplied to this day. Therefore it’s important to leave the earth in its natural state, as then it will take in whatever it needs, and there’s a definite “no” to artificial chemicals. It takes years until the ground has regenerated itself, and that worked perfectly on his little farm, says Martin.
Then I got a bit carried away, he says, and both a bit of understatement and a bit of pride ring in his voice. That was about 12 years ago, when in the supermarkets everyone jumped on the organic bandwagon. However, those in the know could see that a lot of conventional foods were smuggled in under that label. It was infuriating for someone like Martin. You have to stand up to that, he told himself, and became a founder member of the “Lebendige Vielfalt” (Living Di-versity) Association. At the same time he pounced when a farmer in the area retired and leased out his fields.
I thought that with my prior knowledge, changing it all to Demeter would be a cinch, says Martin and has to laugh at him-self. To this day Demeter-style farming has its surprises. You never stop learning, says Martin, but it does get easier all the time. By now he is working 49 hectares (121 acres), and as they are spread across an area of 10 kilometres (6 miles), even hail can’t hit him that hard, because it never reaches everywhere.
It’s not making me rich, but I’m self-sufficient and independent.
Not only did he switch to organic, he also specialised in old types of grain. These produce a smaller yield, says Martin, but on the other hand it’s consistent. Alongside foxtail millet, an old and stable type of wheat, korosan wheat and buckwheat, he cultivates emmer wheat, spelt and Einkorn wheat, as well the very rare German rye. This is an ancient type of rye with a small grain, which has always been native to this region. It was used for feeding the animals in autumn, for thatching the roofs and for baking rye bread. To this day its deli- cately spicy flavour is appreciated by bakers, who use it as a starter for their sourdough.
As Martin Allram likes to be in control, he’s also started to make flour, semolina and rice from his grains himself, taking great care, of course. For instance, he has purchased three Zentrofan mills for the milling. With a constantly circulating air stream, these grind the grains against a natural millstone in the aforementioned garage. Processes like these, says Martin, take up more time and effort than the farming itself.
Of course he also uses the seeds from his own harvest so nothing can go wrong. He has to pay meticulous attention, because grains like to cross-breed, especially rye. It was a difficult path to follow, says Martin and wipes a few drops of sweat from his brow, until he finally got recognition. A few things fell by the roadside along the way. He had to give up the “Lebendige Vielfalt” Association, as well as plans for a shop on the farm, and the little store at the Vorgartenmarkt in Vienna, which just took up too much energy, considering that it was an enter-prise on the side.
But things have gone well for the past few years, not least because Martin is someone who can talk about his philosophy and therefore his ware with great enthusiasm. When he’s finished, everyone wants to have his grains. Even so, not everyone gets them. He delivers, in person of course, only to selected health food stores and shops such as the Genussbus at the Wieden – Vienna’s fourth district – a few bakeries and some restaurants. The restaurant Der Floh in Langenlebarn swears by Allram’s grains, and of course he is very pleased that Heinz Reitbauer has been using his German rye rather than rice for the past two years.
The heat is turning the horizon into a shimmer-ing stripe between the sky and the earth. Soon, says Martin, he will revive the project of a shop on the farm, because demand is growing. The jars of herbs and spices for soup, for which he uses the organic vegetables grown in his garden, are also flying off the shelves. In the next few days he’ll boil up some jam, because he gathered so many blueberries in the woods. Then there’s the dream of a few cows for his own production of meat and dairy.
As we wonder about this passionate organic farmer’s interpretation of scaling back, Martin Allram rushes off and jumps into his car, because by now the dew on the grains really has dried off.
Rare vegetable varieties, the taste of tomorrow and cooking for a better world: Stories of tradition and the future of gastronomy.
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