At a very young age, I actually knew that I would study biology, forestry or agricultural sciences. However, my interests were broad, and I could also have done a Master in Microbiology or Cell Biology. Instead, I did a Master in Plant Ecology – maybe also due to my passion for leisure activities in nature. And since many of those activities were in the alpine, I was somehow attracted to do my first scientific work in the alpine. This was not without additional challenges, given the lack of supervisors for work on alpine ecology at that time at my home university. My way around that was to do the alpine ecology PhD anyway, without scholarship, but with an enthusiastic team of supervisors. There, I learnt some of the ingredients for a successful project… passion, dedication and the right team.
Understanding alpine ecosystems remained my primary research interest for a while – alpine ecosystems are just perfect to study some of the most intriguing facets of plant ecology, namely positive interactions among plants. Indeed, plants can help each other! What a change in paradigm after a century of “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest”! In harsh environments, be it alpine or arid, such beneficial interactions are more frequent and therefore easier to detect and study. We could learn a lot about facilitative interactions!
During all this time, I did not forget about my roots – grown up on a family-owned farm in Switzerland – and here and there, I wondered if any of these exciting findings from the mountains or the desert would be relevant for agriculture. A lucky man I am that the Swiss National Science Foundation supported my then a bit “out of the box” ideas of persecuting facilitative interactions in crop systems. And there I was, trying to reveal the benefits of diversity in crop systems through exploitation of beneficial plant–plant interactions. And this is one of our goals with the current research at the Aprisco de Las Corchuelas.
My enthusiasm and engagement in the Aprisco de Las Corchuelas project it is not only driven by my interest in taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct long-term research projects, nor only the idea of being able to conduct participatory research together with a range of stakeholders being in close interaction at a single site, nor the beauty of the place adjacent to the Monfragüe National Park, but the combination of all this, together with the vision Elisa and I share of the world in general and ecology and agriculture in particular.
There is also an excellent fit of the objectives of the Aprisco de Las Corchuelas and the research activities of my Agricultural Ecology group at ETH Zurich, i.e. one of the world-leading universities in agricultural and natural sciences. Our research covers fundamental questions in ecology, such as the coexistence of species and the combined role of biodiversity and evolutionary processes on ecosystem functioning, ecological applications, such as the use of biodiversity to improve the functioning of crop systems, but also stakeholder-driven participatory research in agroecology. I see here a winning team, and we all know – “never change a winning team” (Alf Ramsey).