Trip of a Lifetime: German Agriculture

In early November I had the chance to travel to Europe for the first time in my life and I got to enjoy the trip of a lifetime in Germany. This trip was part of an ongoing “Transatlantic Dialogue” program organized and hosted by the German American Chamber of Commerce. The European Recovery Program of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides the fu ding the for trip. The GACC in turned partnered with several farm organizations from Nebraska and the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee. Their program “Smart Farming Dialogues” brought several farmers and scientists to the United States in September and a group of producers to Germany in early November. Myself, along with several of my colleagues from the Montana Grain Growers Association and Montana Wheat and Barley Committee (Lyle Benjamin, Buzz Mattelin, Lenard Schock, and Gary Broyles), were part of that group.

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As I was boarding my flight to Paris – I texted my husband and said “I’m just boarding my flight to Paris.” He knows that travel is a passion of mine, and if I had stayed in Corporate America I likely would have traveled extensively abroad and possibly have taken job opportunities overseas. He replied to my text: “Did you ever think in your farming career that you would be able to say that?” I smiled a big smile and texted back: “Not really.” Anyway, I digress. On to the important and fascinating details of German agriculture.

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We landed in Frankfurt where we spent the night before heading out early the next morning for the first of our tour stops. We were able to tour the DLG Testzentrum which is an agriculture testing facility. This facility tests the safety and stamina of all sorts of agricultural equipment. We also toured Claas’ corporate headquarters and manufacturing facility as well as one of Lemken’s manufacturing plants. Both facilities were fascinating. Unfortunately, like almost all manufacturing facilities, they do not allow pictures on their tours. In this part of Germany the farm equipment is required to be very narrow comparative to US equipment (3 meters wide) and it is also required to have a license plate. The area we visited in Western Germany, we spent 3 night in Billerbeck and another in Xanten, is considered rural however the farm equipment is often driven on tight and crowded city streets and through urban centers.

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Interspersed between our trips to these manufacturing facilities were tours of various farms. We were also generally accompanied by Marcus Holtkotter. Marcus is a producer and the founder of AgChat Germany. He also accompanied the GACC on the US portion of the trip. He was kind enough to join us throughout our trip whenever his schedule allowed, along with providing us with dinner one evening. He is a tremendous resource on German (and EU as a whole) agriculture and has become a good friend of Lyle’s (who is the current VP of the Montana Grain Growers Association and pictured below with Marcus).

IMG_2800 This area of Germany produces a wide variety of crops and animal products. Hog, laying hen and cattle (both beef and dairy) operations are common as well as winter barley, corn, soft red winter wheat, a certain amount of vegetable production. We toured three different farms, including one that had been in the family for 800 years (yes, 800). This area averages 28.5″ of rain per year and unlike Montana a significant amount of that comes between October-February. This region utilizes cover crops fairly extensively to manage the excess water – and it is unbelievable to see cover crops standing well over 5 feet tall in the field, as well as lodged over because they are so heavy.

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Their cattle operations were also fascinating as they do not castrate any of their male calves. There is not a steer to be found in Germany. The German consumers do not demand the marbling that we do in the United States and because of that lack of demand along pressure from animal rights activists in Brussels, they only raise bulls. Almost all of their operations do not utilize pasture because of the lack of land for pasturing. The cattle are fed in barns, or open pens, bedded and have their manure scrapped from the pens twice a day. Hogs are also raised under roughly the same conditions (aside from adherence to strict bio-security protocol to maintain the health of the animals).

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** As a note: the pig I was touching there was not part of a large scale commercial operation. **

Germany has a sizable renewable energy sector and farms have learned to take advantage of those advances to vertically integrate their operations. Several of the farms we visited had biogas-digesters. These digesters allow their operations to utilize either their manure from their livestock operations or their maize silage. German farmers utilize the biogas-digesters to process their cattle or hog manure, contracting with energy companies to receive a certain amount of money per kilowatt-hour for the energy they develop. The by-product left after the digester has done its work is then spread on their fields in the form of dry matter nitrogen. This allows farms to utilize their manure, create a new revenue stream, follow environmental regulations, and create their own manure for their crops.

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Speaking of crops: this area produces quite a bit of winter barley, soft red wheat, sugar beets, maize, and an assortment of vegetables. Many of their crops are utilized by the farms themselves for their animals. They also put up quite a bit of pasture forage. I have never had the opportunity to see winter barley growing in the field as well as asparagus or kale. As a side note, as you can see in the last picture their seed is delivered in 75 KG bags, for us that typically deal with seed in 2000 pound totes or 1000 bushel semi’s that is a crazy thought.

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We also had the opportunity to explore European Union and German agriculture policy with several different presentations. Dr. Wilhelm Klumper, Office for European and International Relations for the German Farmers Association, presented us with information on EU regulations and a little bit of detail on the farm safety net structure in the EU and Germany. They function not under a crop insurance model backed by shallow low subsidy programs like we do – instead they have a direct payment model. These payments are provided on every acre they are farming, regardless of the crop they are planting. They are required to plant a new crop at least once every five years, so land does not stay in pasture or grass for very long before being rotated. They are also required to maintain compliance with a large assortment of environmental regulations to remain eligible for their payments. A member of the Westphalian Farmer’s Association staff also presented us with information on the role of farm organizations. The Westphalian Farmer’s Association is comparable to an organization like the Farm Bureau Federation in the U.S.

Scattered in with all of the rest of these visits was a tour of the Hemelter Muhle, a grain elevator, and a brief stop to tour German grocery stores. The grain elevator and German grocery stores were very similar to the ones we encounter in the United States. I think the most unusual thing I saw was the eggs were in the middle of the produce section. Eggs are not washed in the E.U. and therefore do not need to be refrigerated. I also noticed that the flour packages were far “prettier” than the ones in the U.S. – U.S. flour mills should step up their game.

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One of our last stops was a local farmer’s market and the local Agricultural Testing and Educational Center. This center includes a fairly extensive research center for dairy (both conventional and organic). The research center is often studying feed efficiency, water uptake, and various other projects to improve herd health, efficiency, and milk output and quality. One the school side: the German education system is typically 10-12 years followed by either University or an apprenticeship. Agriculture has an apprenticeship program that allows students to work on area farms for four days a week and attend classes on the fifth day. These classes range from management to crop production, organic and animal husbandry. The German education system allows students to study agriculture in a variety of ways – as a skilled profession allowing for the apprenticeship program mentioned above to university undergraduate degrees and masters degrees. The latter are equivalent to the degree system we are familiar with in our college and universities.

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Our final farm tour was Naturhof Etzold, the family farm of one of our hosts. Their farm has been organic since 1998. They do a significant amount of direct marketing of their products through Farmers Markets and their farm store. They have 2,000 laying hens, pasture production that is leased to a neighbor before becoming pasture for their pens, lambs, a few hogs, vegetables, potatoes, and cover crops. The laying hens largely are housed in movable pasture units. As I mentioned previously eggs are not washed (aside from to remove dirt, poop, etc) and are stored at room temperature. What I have not mentioned is each egg is stamped to allow for identity preservation. The stamps are numerical and provide information on the production method (organic, free range, conventional), country of origin, and the unique registration number for each laying facility.

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I am not really sure what my expectation were for this trip – however I did not expect to have the trip of a lifetime. The diversity of German agriculture is incredible and the amount of variety, integration, and innovation is amazing. It was an incredible learning experience for myself and my colleagues, a great opportunity to explore a part of Europe and Germany that many people do not get to see, as well as a great opportunity to network and develop agricultural contacts from around the world. If anyone is given the opportunity to participate in a similar trip, specifically with the German American Chamber of Commerce, I urge you to take advantage. These types of opportunities do not come around very often and need to be taken full advantage of.

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2 Comments

  1. Alexander
    December 16, 2017 / 7:38 pm

    Nice article! Just a quick info, you where in a high rainfall area with maritime climate, so not to hot in summer, not to cold in winter. This area is specialised in pigs and slaughterhouses and not much about arable farming. In the north and east are more arable farms with seed in 1000kg big bags or bulk and 6-12m machines. More than 12m is not usual because we need to fold everything to maximum 3m long, 4m high and 12m long on the street. Because here live 82 million people in an area, smaller than california.

    • December 16, 2017 / 8:33 pm

      Yes, thank you — I should have noted that agriculture and climates varied significantly between the western part of the country and the north and the east.

      Thanks for the further info on equipment width/length/height requirements. I couldn’t remember all of the details.

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