Feb 1, 2014 – Germany is a historical country, right from resisting and taking down the expansionist Roman empire, the world wars to its own reunification. These are all path-breaking developments in their own times. I arrive in Berlin to speak at the International Green Week.
Always a colourful celebration of farm producers from across Europe, this year’s event had greater participation from the east European states. The debate too is surprisingly balanced and diverse views are encouraged; much like the Bharat Krishak Samaj seminars back in India.
While deliberations take place inside, there are demonstrations outside. One set of demonstrators wants more physical space for chicken in coops, pigs in pens and cows in enclosures while another wants a ban on export of agriculture produce from Germany. I enquire what this is about and am astounded by the response. Why produce more food or more meat than the country needs, the demonstrators ask. This position emanates from the well argued position that agriculture for export destroys the local environment.
Another set of protestors wants a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops but times have changed and GM corn is being approved for sowing in Europe. With such a disparate group of protestors, farmers here are obviously feeling uneasy. A self-sufficient society might afford such eccentricities, India certainly cannot.
The day is sunny and warm but I am stuck indoors in the large conference centre. I get to meet the president of the Deutscher Bauernverband (DBV) Joachim Rukwied. I hear him speak at the state reception in the evening and though I do not understand a word of German, I can sense his enthusiasm; he evokes emotions and passion and is cheered by the audience.
Joachim is also fighting the urban bias in policies that are influenced by an increasingly vocal urban population. He is a worried man for he is responsible for most of Germany’s farmers. I also get to meet the formidable and respected Franz-Josef Feiter, former state secretary and secretary general, who inspires me to join other international farmer organizations.
The next day Steffen Pingen, Umweltpolitik, Deutscher Bauernverband, takes me to visit a farm. After a two-hour drive we arrive to meet farmer Peter Kaim, who lives in Behnitzer Weg in Buandenburg, Germany. Peter’s father had an 11 hecatare (ha) farm in Bavaria in front of the Alps and 11 cows. Sensing an opportunity arising out of reunification, Peter came from Bavaria 21 years ago to these parts of what was earlier East Germany, worked on a farm for three years, and later bought 60 ha of land.
Bavaria has 80,000 farms of an average size of 20 ha. The average land holding in regions that were part of the former East Germany are still far larger though and not only because of pre-unification laws. The quality of land is different too and the land is valued as such.
Hard working Peter today owns 500 ha and leases the rest of the 850 ha land that he cultivates. He has 600 ha under cultivation (150 canola, 150 maize, 30 ha for kernels and 120 whole plant silage) and 300 ha with barley, rye and wheat combination. He owns 150 cows that give 9,100 litres of milk per cow average year. The cost of milk is up to 40 cents of a Euro per litre from 19 cents four years ago. Milk is collected every two days by DMK (German Mobile Counter).
The landscape at places is literally littered with windmills. This is a consequence of the alternate energy generation commitment of the country. This too is criticized by many as being economically unsustainable. The drive for alternate energy has even incentivized bio gas co-generation. These incentives are not called farm subsidies though!
In my village there is a saying, ‘you can catch an ear from any side, it is still called catching an ear.’ Whatever you may call it; incentive, mitigation expense or subsidy, it is still a subsidy. Definitely in a more productive form, it is but still a subsidy.
I am surprised again when Peter takes me see the biogas plant that has cost him Euro 5 million and he has spent Euro 1.5 million because the government has agreed to a buy-back of electricity generated at 20 cents of a Euro per unit for 20 years. Peter produces 380 kilowatt (kw) of energy; sells electricity to the grid and provides heat to 800 houses in the village. The banks are happy to fund the investment for they are assured fixed returns for 20 years.
The investment on the biogas unit is more than the cost of land and the profit from it appears to be more than that from agriculture operations. Agriculture thrives on the backbone of the environment mitigation impact policy investment that has been incentivized by the government.
Peter has to store manure for six months by law and has to apply it on the land from February onwards when it gets warmer and plants required nitrogen. After all, theoretically, all this is about saving the land from nitrogen leaching too. Some 300 cows give enough manure for such a size biogas plant. Maize silage gives even more gas and is more profitable. A tonne of maize silage gives the same amount of gas as four tonnes of manure. Therefore the cost of electricity buy-back falls when the ratio of manure used in biogas produced is reduced.
Peter’s is an integrated farm with a complete nitrogen cycle: cow-biogas-field-cow. Is that enough to justify billions of Euros of investment by the government? This does not make economic sense to me but I am happy for Peter. Cows are fed a combination of 11 products; maize silage, maize kernel, gram silage, sugar beet, canola, straw, hay and such others. Peter also sells grass to other farmers. Besides, he is growing soyabean over 5 ha this season to understand the economics.
While Peter is explaining the workings of the fully-automated bio gas unit, the computer screen shows the outside temperature at (-)4.3°C. I was already feeling very cold in the cloudy windy weather outdoors but now I start to feel colder knowing the temperature outside is so low. Peter tells me that this winter is very mild and normally the temperature dips to (-)10°C to (-)15°C.
It is a tough life in spite of the zero tillage machinery, the size of small houses, scattered over different sheds and the sophistication of operations. Peter employs eight people who get paid Euro 1,700 per month of which Euro 500 is deducted for insurance and medical policy. The take home wage is Euro 1,200. Peter also has two apprentices who have come to learn and get paid Euro 400 each.
After an extended tour of the farm we drive to Peter’s house where his wife asks me what I want to drink. I ask for milk not only because I am in dairy farmer’s house but also because milk is my favorite drink. My family and I savour milk just like the Germans savour beer. Germany surprises me again. Peter tells me that he cannot offer his guests his own cow’s milk if it is not processed, which he does not do. Therefore, I drink milk purchased from the market.
India has no such laws and had there been one no one would follow. Peter’s wife tells me that their eldest son is learning to work on a farm. She serves us nice sandwiches with warm milk and I am tempted to ask her to pack some more for me but I resist. I have already imposed on their time and their warm hospitality that I shall always remember. I invite them to come visit me on my farm in my village and experience a different world.
Back in my village, my friends ask me if I would prefer to farm in Germany since I am so impressed with the government support for farmers and as I rave about their advanced farming practices. I do not hesitate to say no; India is too good to leave. We have taken this the long road to progress not to run away for greener pastures elsewhere but to change the nation to one where farmers prosper.