Christoph Carlen: reconcile all of the different interests

Christoph Carlen

At first there’s a hesitation, but then the enthusiasm is clearly audible. “We were absolutely delighted to take over the leading role, together with France, in an EU research project in 2010. The subject was new cultivation systems for the quality production of red berries with high levels of health-related constituents. It’s this cooperation across national borders, but also the learning from one another, that Christoph Carlen sees as an important part of his work. 

Christoph Carlen’s interest in agriculture, and in the researching of plants in particular, started early on, as a child haymaking during the holidays in the valley of Goms in the canton of Valais, and whilst he attended the Spiritus Sanctus College in Brig – the German-language academic high school in the Valais. Here, he worked during the summer holidays in the Chablais region on a farm combining cattle production and field crops. Before gaining his school-leaving certificate, he almost never left the canton, except for excursions to Domodossola and Chamonix. “I was nineteen when I saw the sea for the first time” Carlen grins. 

Even his student years in Zurich were just an interlude, although he found the atmosphere at the ETH to be extremely exciting during his Agricultural Engineering studies and subsequent doctoral studies. And unlike those who go straight on to their postdoctoral studies or spend their gap year travelling around the world, Christoph Carlen immediately settled down in the Valais in 1994. He started a family in Gampel, becoming a father to two daughters and a son. The canton of Valais had given him the opportunity to carry on from where he had left off with his dissertation in Zurich. As a scientific consultant in the Office for Agriculture, he helped implement Integrated Production in the Valais, especially in the mountain region. It was “quite an exercise”, as Christoph Carlen describes it today – it is not easy to change habitudes of farmers. “But today, the farmers themselves also say that it was worthwhile.” All you ever need, opines Carlen with typically Valaisian imperturbability, is “simply a bit of distance”. 

In 1999, Christoph Carlen took a step which he had long contemplated. Ever since completing his PhD, he had pinned his hopes on a post at one of the research institutes. It turned out then that a position in the ‘Berries and Medicinal and Aromatic Plants’ Research Group was being advertised at the Agroscope Conthey site. Having an interest in the subject, he applied for and got the job, which he then found to be extremely enjoyable. When his boss Charly Darbellay reached retirement age in 2005, Christoph Carlen was well-placed to take over from him and head the ‘Covered Crops and Crops in the Alpine Area’ Research Division at the Conthey and Cadenazzo sites. From then on he focused on research activities in the ‘Special Crops’ Division and headed international and national research projects, primarily with scientists from France, Germany, Austria and Turkey, who could all look back on a long tradition in special crops such as berries, apricots, tomatoes and aromatic herbs. 

It therefore seemed logical for Christoph Carlen to be appointed a member of the Agroscope Executive Board at the beginning of 2017, where he has since headed the ‘Plant Production Systems’ Strategic Research Division. Nowadays, though, he does very little research himself. He sees his current job more as that of a coach who brings his experience to bear in the formulation of projects and the interpretation of research findings. He still finds interactions and contact with practitioners to be very important and constructive, however. “Here” he notes self-critically, “we can become even better, anticipate potential problems earlier, and thus also develop appropriate solutions sooner.” A good example of this, for example, would be the control of Drosophila suzukii. And what does he think of the criticism levelled by practitioners? Considering their own perspective, the farmers and organisations bring very often good approaches for research. “Our job, however, is to reconcile all of the different interests.” For this reason, he’s extremely pleased that Agroscope’s efforts at communication have been redoubled lately.