Family Farming for the 21st Century
Germany is preserving the tradition of family farming by helping farmers branch out.Germany's fresh markets bring me to my knees. From Heidelberg, where I live, I can get on my bike and, in 10 minutes, find myself surrounded by stalks of brussells sprouts, heads of snow-covered savoy cabbage, and rows of crisp, yummy leeks. And I can purchase them directly from the farmers. Many farms have proper brick-and-mortar storefronts adjacent to their fields. Smaller ones have stands that operate on the honor system. I can get fresh mâche greens, homemade preserves, herbs, flower arrangements, nuts, and even wine by throwing a couple of Euros into one of the post boxes that serve as ersatz cash registers.My love of the fresh food in Germany has developed into an interest in regional agriculture-and has become a frequent topic of conversation. Before long, I discovered that some friends happened to know people in the Chamber of Agriculture (Landwirtschaftskammer). Naturally, when they offered to introduce me, I leapt at the chance.That's how, early on a crisp, semi-frozen February morning, I left my home in Heidelberg for Bentheim County, on the border with Holland, to spend two weeks learning about regional farming practices and to experience firsthand the daily operations of a German farm. I wanted to learn more about German farmers, their operations, and the product of their labor: the food that I so deeply enjoy. What I discovered was that I needed to first consider how a farming system works from the inside out. Sustainable agriculture must first sustain the agrarians. This is something Germany seems to have figured out: By investing in farmers' educations and helping them adapt to new environmental realities, Germany is ensuring that its farming traditions can survive-and thrive-amid today's challenges.What makes the German model so interesting is how distinct it is from the that of the United States. German farmers not only endure robust training and certification, they also receive strong support from the government. Of course, some of these support systems also exist in the United States. Each U.S. county has a County Extension Office that serves as a technical and home economics hub for rural families. And many areas have agricultural youth organizations such as Future Farmers of America and 4-H. There are also a number of well-established-even elite-agricultural colleges and universities.But historically, farming in America has been an individualistic enterprise, shaped by the notion of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer-a model based on practical education, self-sufficient hard work, and rugged independence. American farms are less independent today than they once were, but one thing is for sure: Our training and education for farmers is nowhere near German standards. I was eager to see how the new generation of farmers is working within the country's solid traditions, and the Averes family would prove to be the perfect hosts.
When I arrive at the Averes Farm, the family of six-father Bernd, mother Annette, son Hendrik, daughters Wilma and Gerlinde, and their Oma Wilhelmine-is preparing abendbrot, a light dinner. I have packed every pair of long johns I own, and woolens for every extremity, but the family has my uniform ready: a cozy blue onesie, green John Deere San Francisco cap, and big rubber boots. After a very quick meal, we head to the barn for evening milking and feeding.The Averes's have 20 milk cows, 40 steers, 100 pigs, one hog, and 200-odd piglets. They also have a few chickens that Oma keeps for fun. She's had them for two years and is quite impressed that they are still laying an egg every day despite the fact that they usually only do for eight months. "As long as they're still doing their job, they can stick around," she tells me. "When they give out, they'll have to end up in the soup pot. That's just how it goes, right?"A few days after I arrive, on a Saturday, the Averes family hosts a traditional schuhsolen backen (literally "shoe sole baking") party. We don't bake real shoe soles, of course; instead we make tasty facsimiles of them out of whole-wheat dough spiced with cinnamon and anise. The dough is flattened between two square-shaped irons and stuck in a fire to bake.All the guests bring their own "shoe sole iron" with an etching of their farm or "Happy New Year" in Plattdeutsch (a mixture of Low German and Dutch), giving a personal imprint to their "shoe soles." The signature cocktail features raisins that had been soaked in a mixture of the local grain alcohol and rum, served in a glass of schnapps. The brew delivers a slow but powerful punch. This wouldn't be the only local celebration I witnessed during my two-week stay; they're common during the cold winter months. I learn quickly that despite their strong sense of tradition, many multigenerational farming families in Germany depend on the support of the government, the education system, and agricultural outreach programs.The German education structure is vastly different from the one-route-suits-all system in the United States, and vocational training is emphasized. Those who want to concentrate on agriculture attend either fachhochschule (vocational school) or realschule (secondary school) followed by a one-year berufsgrundbildungsjahr. This year of vocational training teaches them the practicalities and business basics of farming.
After their BGJ, young farmers live on a neighboring farm for a year of practical, on-the-job training under a meister landwirt (master farmer). There they experience the yearly cycle of farm work and learn the ropes from an experienced farmer. This is followed by a second year as an apprentice at a different farm. At that point, would-be farmers take a state-administered written test, and if they pass, they're officially deemed a landwirt, or farmer.Becoming a meister landwirt requires additional training. My host Bernd was certified almost 25 years ago; young Hendrik is in the middle of his studies this year. Unlike students in the United States, though, Hendrik's education is provided at practically no cost-as is the case with most education in Germany.Further, farmers continue to receive state support well into their careers. Landwirts who own or lease farm land are obliged to be a dues-paying member of the Agricultural Extension Service, which provides services and training for farmers. One afternoon, Annette takes me to one such training event. It's a course for rural women, designed to familiarize them with upcoming changes in tax law and new record keeping requirements.It's dark and very cold when I wake at the farm. Every morning Oma prepares a meal of tea and cake that's eaten at 6:15 a.m., before the family heads to the barn to milk and feed the cows, feed the bulls and pigs, and discover any newborn calves or piglets. After we head out, she gets things ready for the full breakfast that will come later.By my second day, I'm significantly better at milking cows. I help Annette hook the cows up to the milking machines-pneumatic "hands" that must be manually attached to the udders. Annette favors this daily contact with her animals, and it lets her check if any of them has trouble or an illness.The milk is picked up every other day to be sold to a regional dairy, where it sells for about $0.08 per gallon-a thin profit margin, to say the least. Because the stalls and machines all need to be updated and replaced, the Averes family is opting to sell off the cows at the beginning of next year. The price of milk doesn't justify an expensive renovation.Next up are the pigs. The sows with new piglets are kept in smaller stalls, underneath warm heating lamps, set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They stay in these smaller stalls until the piglets weigh at least 65 pounds. The piglets are then weaned and moved to another stall where they start another kind of feed, mixed by the family using their own grain plus soybean oil and supplements from a local granary. This affords them tight quality control and the ability to change a pig's diet due to illness as necessary. The sows, weighing in at over 550 pounds, take a rest from their birth. They sometimes have 15 piglets per throw.
Pigs on the Averes farm are raised for their meat and sold directly to the local slaughterhouse where they're made into all kinds of pork products. New batches of pigs are taken to the butcher every Monday morning at 4:00 a.m. Male pigs are castrated within the first three days because the hormones released from the testicles are thought to give pork a bad flavor. If the butcher finds a rogue testicle during the slaughtering process, the farmers don't get paid for the animal. That's six months of feeding, heating, and management costs down the drain. I am part of "castration station" on my fourth day. My responsibility in the operation is to immunize, sterilize, and sanitize, and keep records of the process. It's quick and efficient-we handle more than 100 piglets in an hour.There's a lot of this functional, detached attitude about animals. The pragmatic Texan in me knows that's what farm life is about. But I still find myself misty-eyed when a baby calf dies just one day after I watch it come into the world. For the Averes family, it is all in a day's work. Farming is tough business, and they can't afford to get too caught up in the romantic side of things.Oma is responsible for cleaning the milking machines after the milking is done. She shows up around 8:00 in the morning. Breakfast is taken around 8:30 a.m. and consists of bread, cheese, coffee, coldcuts, marmelade, Nutella, leberwurst, yogurt, and the occasional soft-boiled egg from the back yard coop. She also makes sure the oven is stoked and full of wood. This solitary wood-fired oven heats the entire house. It runs water through its pipes, heats it, and sends it to the radiators, showers, bathtubs, sinks, washing machines, and dishwashers throughout the house. It is quite a feat considering the house is over 3,000 square feet.Energy is a big concern on the Averes farm. Energy prices have risen enormously, which in turn has affected almost all of the family's direct costs, from the gas heating in the animals' stalls to transportation and feed. These rising costs, combined with falling prices for milk and pork-pigs are currently selling at $0.83 per pound, down from $1.09 per pound just last summer-have forced the family to look for a new source of income that can provide a secure return.
The Averes are looking into producing energy themselves. They're discussing a biogas (methane energy production) project, and have visited a wind farm near the Dutch border. It's becoming increasingly common for farmers to build energy farms to complement their farming operation. They have all the materials on-hand, and are able to continue farming with the added benefit of a secure profit. The animals produce the raw waste (a liquid manure, or slurry) that is captured through a network of grates and canals beneath the stalls. The slurry is combined with organic matter-in this case silage fodder from corn already produced for animal feed-to ferment and produce methane gas. This methane gas is then captured, pressurized, and burned to produce energy. Unused energy from the plant will be sold back onto the grid for a fixed cost per kilowatt-hour. This rate is locked in for 20 years-providing an unusually secure source of revenue.The family's biogas operation would link all the elements of the existing farming system. The corn is already planted and provides the necessary grain. The animals provide the slurry-in great supply. And the biogas plant itself provides heating for the stalls, reducing overall costs, and provides a fine profit from the energy sold back onto the grid. The farm is even able to use the water that cools the plant's engines to heat the animals' stalls.Biogas production in Germany and Europe is quickly becoming a popular method, both in rural and urban areas, of sustainable energy production. In urban areas, Germany has compost trash collection and capitalizes on the methane produced from household organic garbage. This hasn't caught on in the United States for a number of possible reasons. America has concentrated heavily on ethanol and biodiesel production, and our investments in biogas research and development have been miniscule thus far. We've looked at ethanol and biodiesel primarily as gasoline replacements. In Germany, on the other hand, biogas plants simply allow farmers to continue their operations with an added layer of security.
The energy advisor helps the family review quotes from the two biogas firms, then meets with the family and their banker. He was asked to be there to provide objective and professional input to aid in the bank's decision to back the endeavor. I also participate in family meetings with the tax advisor from the Landwirtschaftskammer and the family's accountant. The accountant walks Bernd and Hendrik through the different company structures-Inc., LLC, LLP-and their tax implications.As Hendrik will one day be taking over the farm, the accountant also discusses special loans that the government provides to young farmers. It is quite a sight to be sitting across from a 20-year-old young man considering plunging into a $1.7 million investment. I feel anxious for Hendrik, but he is calm. He has done his homework. Besides, he has worked on the farm long enough to calculate the need to diversify.I wake up the next morning and am greeted in the kitchen by Hendrik's girlfriend, Gesa. She is helping with the milking and feeding. She's from a neighboring farming family and is studying to go to university. She would like to study physics or biology-something that makes sense for the farm. I watch the two of them head off with a full cart of pig feed. They are the next generation of German farmers, pushing convention in a new direction. Still, tradition isn't too far away.(Photos by Clair Holt)