German agriculture under the microscope

International Agriculture: Farmers are pursuing sustainability against a backdrop 
of increasing public scrutiny

Rommerskirchen, Germany – Here are our ‘plant protection’ products,” Willi Kremer Schilling told a delegation of foreign journalists as they entered the fortress-like warehouse at the Buir-Bilesheimer Agricultural Co-operative.

“I never say ‘pesticides,” he said. “These are ‘medicines’ for plants.”

Willi is one of the 1,150-member co-op’s farmer-directors and he proudly hosts tours of its new grain-handling and farm supply facility located about an hour outside of Bonn in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Bauer Willie

Bauer Willie
photo: Laura Rance

But he’s better known in his home country as Bauer (Farmer) Willi after he dived into the deepening chasm between farmers and consumers with a “Dear Consumer” letter he posted online in January 2015.

“I was very, very angry, and when I’m angry, I write,” he told his visitors.

He saw red after seeing the payment stub for a load of non-contract potatoes his neighbour delivered to the french fry factory. The farmer received one euro cent per kg.

“I’m completely fed up today,” starts his rant against low prices, tightening regulations, increasing paperwork, and fickle consumer perceptions about modern food production.

“You, dear consumer, only want one thing: cheapness. And you also have demands. Your food should be GMO free, gluten free, lactose free, cholesterol free, low in calories… and if fertilized, then organic. But it shouldn’t stink, and when the fields are organically fertilized, it shouldn’t be done near you.

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Unrecognizable person digging with pitchfork, low section, assorted vegetables in foreground

“Of course, it can’t be sprayed with pesticides, but it has to look tip-top, with no spots — most likely you’d prefer that we plow the fields with horses… and then the tractors wouldn’t be in your way when you go jogging down our farm paths…

“… Why am I writing all of this? To give you a sense of how it feels to be in my situation… Yes, we are running a business. But we are not locusts: we can’t, (and don’t want to), just move somewhere else after it’s all been eaten away.”

It goes on for two pages, single spaced.

Viral

By morning, his tirade had received 8,000 views. Within two weeks, it had been read by 300,000. Views are now at six million and rising. His letter has been translated into other languages. Then came radio and television interviews, and most recently, a book.

“I used all the bad words I know — pesticides, glyphosate, genetic engineering,” he said with a grin. “But I show my point of view as a farmer, and that is very different from the city citizens.”

German farmers feel squeezed between intensifying pressure on their production practices and tightening margins.

German farmers feel squeezed between intensifying pressure on their production practices and tightening margins.
photo: Laura Rance

Bauer Willi regularly dialogues with non-farmers on his Facebook page by outlining the dilemmas farmers face. One of his latest posts talks about the trade-offs between herbicides and tillage when controlling weeds in the field post-harvest.

“Do I spray it with glyphosate or drive three times with the tractor over it?” he said, noting tillage means more emissions, more fuel, more time and more field compaction.

“The city people say, ‘don’t spray glyphosate’; the farm guys say, ‘don’t drive the tractor,’” he said.

He makes no apologies for the choices farmers make. “I am not ‘explaining’ anything, I am telling stories and those stories are emotional,” he said. “I don’t want to reach the brain, but the heart.”

Bauer Willi’s frustration is widely shared among German farmers, who number only one million in a country of nearly 82 million. The need to accommodate consumers and governments, while adjusting to a shrinking share of their spending, permeates all aspects of agriculture.

Face to face

Information provided by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture notes despite the country’s dense population, half of its territory is in agricultural production. It is one of the top four agricultural producers in Europe.

So the interaction between farmers and non-farmers is constant and intensifying as the focus shifts towards sustainability.

In Neuss, about an hour outside of Bonn, Berd Olligs has combined his sixth-generation crop farm with the Bayer ForwardFarm program, one of 22 sites in the country at which Bayer researchers and farmer co-operators explore ways to make modern farming more sustainable.

Olligs feels farmers’ every move is watched with suspicion. For example, farmers spray when there is little wind, which often means spraying into the evening or before everyone else is up in the morning. “People think that if you are spraying when most people are sleeping then you are doing something illegal,” he said.

Part of the research on his farm involves planting demonstration plots of weeds, a travesty to his father who remembers hand pulling those same plants in a bid to reclaim food security in the postwar years. In a part of the world that has known hunger, modern crop protection products represent much more than improved incomes. There was a time when controlling the pests meant having enough to eat.

A host of projects underway at the Olligs’ farm tests strategies and technologies that improve water and soil management, increase biodiversity, increase the precision of using chemical inputs and provide pollinator havens.

Researcher Patrick Lind explains how biodiversity on German farms can be improved with pollinator havens — small areas of land that provide wild pollinators with flowering plants and places for them to rest and nest.

Researcher Patrick Lind explains how biodiversity on German farms can be improved with pollinator havens — small areas of land that provide wild pollinators with flowering plants and places for them to rest and nest.
photo: Laura Rance

Innovations

Those projects include some remarkable innovations, such as the Phytobac, a Dutch-designed remediation system for water contaminated with pesticides that uses only soil and straw.

Crop farmers in Germany are required to capture the water used to wash out sprayers, which has been identified as a primary source of waterway contamination. “Fifty per cent of pollution comes from farmyards, and the rest from the fields,” said David Lembrich of Bayer CropScience Deutschland. Preventing run-off from the fields is problematic, but “we can stop point source from the farmyard 100 per cent.”

David Lembrich of Bayer CropScience discusses the Dutch-designed Phytobac, which uses straw and soil to remove herbicides from water used to wash out sprayers.

David Lembrich of Bayer CropScience discusses the Dutch-designed Phytobac, which uses straw and soil to remove herbicides from water used to wash out sprayers.
photo: Laura Rance

Using units that cost between 8,000 to 10,000 euros (C$11,500 to $14,500) the farm operator can flow the contaminated water into an open-air container filled with the right mix of dirt, straw and at the correct temperature. The moisture evaporates and the microbes break down the herbicides.

Sustainable solutions for agriculture are out there, but the inescapable reality for farmers is that each layer of sustainability comes at a cost, either through upfront investment in new technology or reduced income because of changes in how they farm.

Meanwhile, governments are getting more stingy with taxpayer support and markets are sagging under the weight of too much supply.

Dairy crisis

The dairy sector has been particularly hard hit since the European Union ended its quota system in April 2015. Many farmers had expanded their production in anticipation of new markets in Russia, China and perhaps even Canada under its new trade deal with the EU. Those markets have yet to materialize. Instead, the market crashed under the weight of surplus production. Today, milk is selling in supermarkets at less than the cost of bottled water, well below the cost of production.

The EU Common Agricultural Policy recently stepped up with 500 million euros (C$720 million) in support for farmers who voluntarily curb milk production. Many would like to see a return to supply management.

Markus Legge has some advice for Canadian dairy farmers contemplating a deregulated market. “It would be the greatest mistake farmers can do,” he said. “Keep it.”

Legge is surviving what’s commonly referred to as the “dairy crisis” because he switched his 80-ha dairy farm to organic production. Most of his farmland is only suitable for forage so it’s tailor-made to the organic way. As well, he bought two robotic milking stations and took them to the paddocks.

The mobile robotic milkers, which reduce the amount of hired labour he needs, are set up in his paddocks for three seasons when the cows are on pasture. They are then moved to the yard for the winter, when the cows are off the fields. He has lower production costs and he receives a higher price for his milk, more than double what conventional dairy farmers receive when premiums for quality and subsidies for sustainable farming practices are considered.

But even the organic market goes through volatile price swings relative to available supply. Organic suppliers are routinely asked to limit their deliveries to their processor until markets recover. Legge is working with two other local farmers on a plan to build their own dairy-processing facility as a means of securing a stable market for their milk.

Elmar and Iris Victor, another dairy farming family in the area, opted to convert their old dairy shed into vacation apartments instead of increasing their herd.

Toy tractors, and games tables have replaced cows in an old dairy shed on the Victor farm. Opening up their farm to vacationers has proven far more lucrative than cows.

Toy tractors, and games tables have replaced cows in an old dairy shed on the Victor farm. Opening up their farm to vacationers has proven far more lucrative than cows.
photo: Laura Rance

“It was a question of what we would do because the income was not sufficient from 40 cows,” Iris said through an interpreter. Offering urbanites a week on the farm where the kids can ride ponies, play in a forest and milk a pretend cow surrounded by the aroma of a working dairy farm has proven far more lucrative. They enjoy an 80 per cent occupancy rate with many repeat customers.

Attractive alternative

If there was any doubt as to how deeply influenced German agriculture is by the linkage between farming, sustainability and social licence, one only need visit the Campus Klein-Altendorf, where lead researcher and CEO Ralph Pude oversees a portfolio of projects focusing on renewable energy.

He is particularly excited about Silphium perfoliatum, also known as the “cup plant,” a sunflower-like perennial native to Missouri.

Biomass researcher Ralph Pude says Silphium perfoliatum, also known as “the cup plant” could be an alternative to maize in the future.

Biomass researcher Ralph Pude says Silphium perfoliatum, also known as “the cup plant” could be an alternative to maize in the future.
photo: Laura Rance

“My opinion is that in the future, this would be a substitute for corn or maize,” Pude said.

For starters, it is bee friendly, providing both a rich source of pollen and high yields of honey. As well, the leaves of the plant form a cup around the stem that holds water for pollinators and birds. The cupping makes it drought tolerant too.

Secondly, it is a prolific perennial that provides an ongoing source of biomass for energy or livestock feed. The square stalks contain a fibrous material that shows promise as a natural source of insulation.

But then Pude mentions an attribute that wasn’t even on the radar when assessing new crops for agriculture a generation ago. It’s pretty.

“Corn is not flowering, and the public recognizes it as a wall of just plants,” Pude said. “This is pleasing to look at.”

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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