The situation is not easy for any of us, but there is no use in complaining about it all the time. We need solutions and it is up to all of us to find them: Farmers, politicians, consumers and dairies. I have faith that this will work because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: Healthy products from healthy animals.
The vast majority of us farmers love our farms and often they have been passed down three or four generations. We have grown up on them, we know every cow, every hill, each little hole in the barn. Our work is not anonymous, alienated, automatized or hostile in any way to our animals. We live in nature and that includes our animals. Even when we slaughter them to feed people, we are connected to them. Every cow that dies, every calf that is born, touches our emotions – some of us are better at showing that than others. But I know that it is true for everyone.
Many people have no idea who we farmers are. That also applies to the consumers who always say in polls that they prefer regional and organic products. People say milk fraom conventional farms is right at the bottom of their list, because those are the farmers who are poisoning the water and soil. That’s always good to hear. But then in the supermarket, people are still taking up the special offers and cheaper products. That’s when you realize for most people, they can’t imagine the person who is making those products. But we can’t just keep passing the blame. We farmers know that not everything always goes as it should, and not every criticism is totally unjustified.
I keep 400 cows on my farm in Schleswig-Holstein and some people would say, “oh nooooooo! Factory farming!” But what does that really mean? Factory farming is when there isn’t enough space and too many cows. It’s not the way to describe a space where cows can move around freely and their food is mostly homemade. I have to treat my animals right if only because that is how I make a living, they provide my income. When I show school kids or visitors around my farm, they are usually amazed and say, “wow, the cows look good, they’re so calm and relaxed.” Suddenly, they see the farmer as a person and I am associated with something positive.
For many farmers, consumers are mysterious creatures. Many of my fellow farmers are afraid of them because they don’t know how to deal with the massive amounts of criticism we get. We farmers, like consumers, also live in our own separate bubble, and we look at the media and social media to get an idea of what’s happening. And then people get a one-sided view of things. You get the feeling that all consumers are against us, that at least half of them are vegetarians or vegans, and that they are against all forms of animal farming for example. If you look at the actual figures, though, you get a different picture. Namely that 2% of consumers are vegan and 7% are vegetarian. We don’t see anything about the rest, the silent majority. So out of fear, we shrink back into our little bubbles, and that’s how misunderstandings develop on both sides.
I am the fourth generation to manage this farm. My great grandfather bought the farm in 1911 and luckily, at some point, my son will take it over. He’s seven right now. So it is absolutely in my interest to make sure that I don’t pass down a farm to him that isn’t profitable. I think I speak for all farmers when I say that nobody wants to close the gates behind them for good. That applies to German farmers just as much as it does to Dutch farmers. So how can we make sure that everyone involved in agriculture agrees on better conditions so that farming is sustainable, animals are treated well, fertilization methods improve and milk prices are reasonable?
Fertilizer regulation has become a huge topic but it really doesn’t need to be. In Germany, a study carried out assessments and identified several “red zones“ where too many animals are kept, there’s too much manure, and too much corn has been planted for bio gas. That has damaged the soil. That’s a fact. And we farmers have to do something about that. We need to talk about how to change that. But it doesn’t help to get hostile and angry about politics. What we need is to get a clear view of the situation. How? We should capture and transfer nutrient surpluses, remove liquid manure or shift livestock farming to areas where less animal husbandry is underway. We need to recreate a more natural connection between animals and the earth. The nutrient limit is 170 kilos of nitrogen per hectare. We wouldn’t have the nitrates problem if we rethought everything through and tried to put things back in balance.
Relation to each animal - Unlike his cows, his 350 chickens have no names, but a warm, dry container that lets them outdoors via an electric floor ramp.
It’s in our own interest to try and keep the soil fertile and to enable biodiversity because otherwise we will destroy our livelihood. Last year, for the first time, we did without glyphosate, and tried using bacteria instead to do what the weedkiller would have done. It worked out really, really well. And it’s really fun doing those kinds of experiments.
But each farmer needs to take care and make sure they don’t accidentally destroy their whole crop in an experiment. It may work out for the best, but not everyone has the resources to take that risk if it doesn’t.
If agricultural policy was more relaxed about regulations, it would be possible to implement many measures which are environmentally friendly, without taking a risk. You just have to let us farmers be farmers. You can see the problem if you look at extreme weather events like droughts or unusually heavy rain. If we’re going to be able to react to whatever the weather throws at us, we need to be able to take a more flexible approach to grassland conversion.
That means if it looks like there will be a shortage, we need to be able to sow grain as needed. It would mean ploughing one or two meadows and sowing cereals to be able to harvest them on time. But the laws don’t permit us to do that. You have to apply to plough meadows months in advance, way too far ahead of time to be able to assess what weather extremes we might see. What we need is less regulation and more faith in what farmers have been doing for centuries.
Farmers are increasingly confused about all the agricultural regulations, so together with a number of colleagues, we set up a group called “Land creates connections”. We called on people to join our demonstrations and protests but it wasn’t about conflict, we don’t want to see tires burning, bales of straw or slurry in front of government buildings, supermarkets or dairies. That’s deeply shameful in my view, and it casts a really negative light on our work.
The alliance is meant to be a way to be seen and mainly to start a dialogue. Farmers are angry because the industry is under such pressure. At a demonstration in Berlin, a farmer came up to me, and I thought, “oh dear, I’ve done something wrong.” But he hugged me and started to cry and thanked us for what we’re doing. “You are my last hope,” he said. My blood ran cold, as I realized that we had waited too long to get involved. It really motivated me to do more. We farmers really need to be more visible.
Getting involved also means talking constructively with retailers. We’ve already sat down in my kitchen to have a chat with the management of EDEKA, and spelled out what we find problematic about their attitude and they listened. We felt connected because we also started a campaign together to help meadows flower again. We made seeds available at the checkout tills free of charge to raise awareness about biodiversity among consumers. It’s also good when it comes to negotiating prices to bring farmers to the table. We also talk with retailers about prices and trading practices. It’s a sensitive issue on both sides and we can only tackle it if both sides are calm, and take time to listen to one another and then look for solutions together. For that, you need trust, and that’s something you can build up. One positive thing is that the dairies are also standing up for us in the negotiations and that’s a good thing. My dream is one day to be able to manage without emergency loans and support. For that to happen, both sides have to show up at the table, negotiate, keep talking, keep fighting. The worst thing would be silence.
Sometimes, when things get really tough, or the harvest is really stressful, I go out and visit my water buffalo. I can see them from a distance grazing on the bog meadows with their gigantic horns. In the afternoons, when the sun shines on the misty meadows, it looks like a picture of African grasslands. I sit at the pasture and tell my buffaloes what’s bothering me or what I’m happy about. That calms me down a lot. Many farmers do that. Our voices calm the animals down, and this helps us to relax as well. You can’t tell me that farmers don’t feel anything for their animals.”
A connection to each animal – Unlike his cows, the 350 chickens don’t have names but they do have a warm and cozy place to stay, and an electric ramp that lets them go outside.