How two German businesses are innovating in the field of Sustainable Agriculture
We spent the first part of our day visiting Rinklin Distribution, a business which ships goods around the Rhein Valley. The business is part of the German Mittelstand, the mid sized, family-owned businesses which make up the brunt of the country’s economic force. Rinklin has been active in the region for decades. Another feature of Mittelstand companies, it has been in the family for multiple generations and represents a long term investment rather than a means to procure a quick profit. Rinklin began as a small, single-man operation hand-delivering goods directly to customers. At the time, the product lineup consisted of a pushcart loaded up with a handful of vegetables and fruits.
The company has grown substantially, and with 12,000 products and 250 total employees, the warehouse contained both clear organization and a buzzing energy. The interaction between the values of the company and the decisions on the business side was very interesting to note. Rinklin is very involved with each step of the process; this begins by working closely with suppliers to make sure the products are of an acceptable quality and ends with their own systems of ensuring the used materials are properly reused or recycled. For instance, we were shown a large area full of infrastructure built to sort used bottles to be sent back to the suppliers for reuse. A 100,000 Euro investment in a machine that compresses corrugated cardboard for more efficient transportation to recycling centers was framed both in terms of the business cost analysis (the machine paid for itself in about 2 years) and the environmental benefits of increasing the proportion of recycled material.
Sustainability remains an important tenet of Rinklin, with multiple innovative attempts at reducing the energy dependence on fossil fuels. Cooling the store room for their refrigerated products generates a lot of heat, typically viewed as a waste product. However, Rinklin uses this heat to warm their offices, helping them cut down on their usual heating costs. Also worth noting is the ongoing process of reducing the amount of diesel used by the fleet of delivery trucks. Recently, Rinklin outfitted some of their trucks with photovoltaic solar panels. The energy those panels provide goes towards maintaining a suitable temperature for the refrigerated products, energy that traditionally would have come from burning diesel. It is important to point out that this is an ongoing process, and that the company hopes to eventually have trucks that use renewable electric energy not only for cooling, but also for driving. The market for such vehicles is still trying to find solid footing, but many are hopeful that the electric car market will see a large boost in volume within the next 5 to 10 years.
Lastly, we visited a local farm called Breitenwegerhof. On its surface, it seems very similar to many of the other farms nearby. There are cows, woolly pigs, and over 200 hens, all raised in very humane conditions. The farm also makes its own cheeses and yogurts using the milk from the cows, also producing eggs and various meats. Sampling a few of the cheeses let us confirm that the Breitenwegerhof way of production – keeping everything organic and relying on skilled individual farmers – makes for some delicious and flavorful cheeses. That aside, this farm was particularly interesting because of the financing behind it. They, as well as many other local farms in and around Freiburg, are backed by Regionalwert AG, which means that the farm is owned by over 500 shareholders. This unique set-up helps to support smaller farms with the expensive initial costs of land and other resources. This is important as it helps to bring balance to a practice that can be dominated by large scale, machine-dominated factory farms. Many of the sustainable practices we witnessed at Breitenwegerhof are not employed in factory farms, and so finding economic structures able to support the smaller local farms is a step in the right direction; this is especially important to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as agriculture remains one of the largest contributors to overall emissions.