By the time he was born, Thomas’ parents were no longer spring chickens. So, he grew up in the “old school” way. For example, fertilising with muck is completely normal for him. These are good foundations, because Thomas was one of the first organic apple farmers in South Tyrol. As early as the late 1980s, when people still smiled condescendingly at the term “organic”, he and his five cousins were making their first forays into organic plant protection techniques.
In 1991 Thomas turned his farm completely over to organic farming and he has been active with the Bioland Südtirol association since it started. Sticking together, talking about everything openly and respectfully – and then carrying it out together: that’s what’s dear to him. And why he puts his heart and soul into being a member of the cooperative, and a unifying force at Biosüdtirol.
The Hafner cousins help each other, they even share some of their farm machines with each other. And that’s a huge help, because organic farming is much more mechanised than many realise. During inspections of the fields and development trips abroad, the South Tyrolean organic farmers were forced to recognise that organic farms frequently produced second-tier quality fruit mainly suitable for processing. But that was not what these organic pioneers wanted to do, nor is it today. In fact, they want that even less today.
“We live from farming and run comparatively small farms. So, our fresh apples focus on quality rather than quantity.”
When Thomas talks about the exchange of experiences between organic farmers his eyes light up. That first generation – he calls them “organic pioneers” – placed a heavy emphasis on plant protection, those who switched later brought modern fruit cultivation practices with them, such as sophisticated pruning methods for the apple trees. Later, they planted scab-resistant varieties that need less protection, both in minds and meadows. And in this cauldron of experiences, disappointments and new ideas, organic farming continued to grow and develop.
Thomas has concentrated his meadows over two areas, in two different climatic zones at 200 and 450 metres altitude respectively. This causes an astounding difference of up to ten days in the ripening time of apples of the same variety. Thomas mainly grows Gala, Braeburn and Evelina® as well as resistant grape varieties, some vegetables and – typical for his town, Terlan – asparagus.
But Thomas even considers the vegetation growing between the tracks. It’s all in his own interest: when the alpine meadow grass flowers, he has problems with hay fever in the meadows. So, he suffered, dwelt on it and tinkered about for a long time – then he had an idea. He mulched the alpine meadow grass much higher than usual, and more frequently. Always just before its flowering stage. It allowed him to kill three birds with one stone: he conquered his hayfever, created a habitat for beneficial organisms and protected the ground of the tracks between the trees.
Two years ago, a storm with wind speeds over 80 km/hour raged across his organic apple meadow. Ripped up trees, harvest-ready apples scattered across the ground. It was a shock for the entire family. But it was no reason to get down-hearted: in no time, they decide to replant the meadow. Thomas increased the humus by reseeding the ground with winter rye and vetch, thus ensuring that the trees rooted themselves even more securely in the ground. He planted various trees and bushes in front of each of the apple tree rows. Cross-anchoring provided a foundation for the hail net and ensured greater stability for the meadow. The net also provides protection against the effects of intense sunshine because the shade keeps the trees fresher during hot periods and the apples don’t get sunburnt.
He created a pond in the middle of the meadow as a water source for little helpers like bees, and surrounded it with hedges and hazelnut bushes. The apple meadow is a model for the fruit growers’ group of the Bioland association, as it allows diversity to flourish in the midst of intensive fruit cultivation. The plant diversity in the tracks between tree rows is held in high esteem – not just by the bees and other organisms: the EURAC, the Laimburg Test Centre, the University of Innsbruck and the Ministry for Nature and Landscapes joined together to award Thomas third place at the Meadow Competition. A particular requirement of the competition was an emphasis on species diversity in intensive cultivation of fruit production.
Thomas’ favourite subject is diversity and farming, in the past and for the future. The words just bubble out of him when he talks about the Association for Ecology. That was the organic movement in the early days: consumers and farmers discussing farming, food and biotopes all together around the table. In the future he predicts not just new topics such as the marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) – an insect that bites into the apples and can cause the loss of harvests – but even how fertiliser will become a key challenge for organic farms. Organic fertilisers are increasingly in demand but their availability is limited. Thomas already has a personal solution: he delivers mineral rich stone powder to an organic cattle farmer, who spreads it directly in his cattle pen. So, the dung for his fruit meadows is already pre-prepared and can even be fine-tuned for different soil types.
The enthusiasm of Thomas and his wife Christine is infectious, especially when it comes to real food. As they talk their passion is clear, in fact you can almost taste it in Christine’s apple soup; it’s a passion that’s been passed to their two daughters. Lena works at Delicacy Manufacture Walcher where balsamic vinegars, salad dressings, fruit preserves and other delicious treats are all produced from traditional recipes - using organic apples, of course. Johanna is studying at the agricultural college. One day she might walk in the footsteps of her father and develop the family’s organic farming legacy even further. With optimism, creativity, openness - and a smile on her lips.