I am back in Germany in January of 2015 and I walk into a warm winter that follows the hottest summers that the world has experienced in centuries. The International Green Week in Berlin is a melting pot of food and culture, where the focus is on the bio-economy. One of the stalls that I visit is from Bavaria, selling what two Germans by the name of Arjun and Annupurana tell me is Sanathan Dharam food: organic and tasty!
The next day is a bright, clear day with lots of sunshine and the air as crisp as the morning mountain air can be. The German farmers association Deutscher Bauernverband (DBV) drives me to the countryside to visit an organic farm in the village of Brodowin. It lies north-east of Berlin close to the Polish border. After a drive of just over an hour we are at the lake side 1,250 hectare (ha) farm. It is possibly the biggest certified by Demeter, an organic certification organization that maintains the most exacting standards of organic certification. I wished that India too had such exacting standards because organic certification in the country needs more credibility.
We are met by Mrs Poinke, our guide for the day. The farm is a huge operation with more than 500 cattle. Of these some 225 cows give milk at a time and the average production is 7,500 litres per cow annually. Impressive though this is, the quantity could have been more had the cattle been fed cereals only. Cereals alone are obviously not ideal feed. The rules of organic certification require that animals be given a complete feed that includes different grasses. This, I am told, reduces the quantity of milk produced but improves the quality.
Such humane agriculture costs more and customers must be ready to pay more. Farmers are not allowed to cut animal horns any more. The company pays €4,000 a year as annual organic certification charges for just the primary production of this farm. Also 0.1 per cent of the total turnover is given to Demeter for research and coming up with new ideas.
Walking on the slushy, grassy path with trees bare of leaves, I figure that life is tough for farmers here but made easier, I am told, courtesy the direct income support of €250 per hectare. The support can vary depending on various criterion. Organic farmers also get additional premium from the rural development subsidy of €130 per hectare. As this farm is situated in a biosphere reserve it makes even more sense to do so.
Till date, support is proportional to the total size of the holding. That will change soon with a complex formula whereby larger farms will get progressively lesser subsidy as size of the holding increases. This is on the lines of what the Bharat Krishak Samaj has been advocating for India even though it upsets large farmers who insist that they create more jobs and have greater area to look after environmentally. I am not sure if these are the only support – called subsidies – being made available to farmers but they sure are well looked after.
We are in former East Germany, where land holding sizes are larger. After the reunification, this original 8,000 ha farm got divided between different land owners. The total collapse of the controlled economy led to land being left fallow for some time. Then some 70 or 80 landowners got together to form a co-operative operation that failed. After various experiments with business models, the farm owners chose to rent out the land to a family from Berlin to run the operations a few years ago. The 20 land owner farmers who leased land to the company also work for it but not necessarily in the farm operations that form only a small part of the business.
There is a limit on how much milk each farm can produce but this is going to end in April 2015 and farmers will be free to produce the quantity they wish to. Sometimes our wishes come true and the choice we make can be very expensive. The price of milk is down 30 per cent to 27-28 cents per litre today. Life is difficult but price of organic milk that sells for 50 cents a litre has not fallen. The cost of milk production has also increased substantially as the law mandates more space per animal.
Each cow has four markers. Earlier the EU mandated only one marker but some farmers started to cheat the system for more support. The EU then mandated two markers, one in each ear. The yellow ear markers look like ear pieces. The cow also has a collar with its identification number or name. A chip in one of its hind legs is used to record other parameters like health.
A week old calf is kept with the mother before it is shifted to a small igloo where it stays for a week and then transferred to a bigger enclosure. It is only fed cow’s milk for 100 days as per organic certification rules. Why do they not allow just the calf to feed directly from the mother for 100 days as in India? I wonder.
The company delivers an ‘Organic Box’ regularly to 1,500 client homes every week while it sells to 2,500 customer’s directly. Customers can place orders on the internet. Earlier the Organic Box would have a fixed quantity of produce. Initially, the customer would have no choice on what to order but now the farm has expanded operations to include organic produce from, practically, all over the world. This allows the company to accept specific orders from customers.
In fact, the farm is a profitable one as a marketing enterprise with a door delivery model and can exist only because of its proximity to Berlin. Also, 90 per cent of the earnings come from sales in Berlin alone. Organic produce is 30 per cent more expensive than that from conventional farms. Expanding economies and increasing prosperity will lead to more demand for organic produce in India too. Of the produce sold, 20 per cent is from their own farm while 80 per cent is procured from elsewhere; 10 per cent of it is sold in the box while 30 per cent of the profit comes from the Organic Box. Looked at from another angle, 30 per cent profit is derived from primary framing, 30 per cent from transformation of primary farm produce and 30 per cent from organic door deliveries.
The farm creates one job per 100 ha of land for primary operations, which is usually the same for conventional farming. In order to create more jobs, the farming operations became more intensified and the farm had to diversify. From one hectare in 1994 to 25 ha now, the farm has also diversified into vegetables. Diversification to transformation, what we in India would call food processing, has helped increase the range of products sold and profits substantially.
The farm also made two additions in the last five years: goats and hens. Goats are very pretty to look at, the pens which have large pieces of wood and cut trees scattered are all over; like a play area for children. Now-a-days there is more demand for goat milk as cow milk does not suit all old people. Goat cheese is very popular too. The farm has 200 goats and 20 goats supply as much milk as one cow. The hens are scattered in the village in mobile stables. Eggs are collected every day.
Milk stays good for no more than nine days. Only what has been pre-ordered is sold as milk and the rest is transformed into various milk products like the most delicious cheeses and yogurt drinks. Pasteurization is necessary but homogenizing of milk is not allowed under organic practices. The state-of-the-art processing facility features a glass-walled enclosure that permits a view but prevents entry to maintain hygiene.
Hundreds of small things make organic standards more difficult to meet but, primarily, going organic is a matter of changing mindsets. It is not only due to perceptions of the urban elite that farmers and the agriculture industry face an image problem but also due to the indiscriminate use of chemicals on the farms that is leading to the inevitable backlash. This holds as true for Germany as for India. However, while image can wait, there is a desperate need to change farming ways to better agriculture. We have to act or we will all sink together.