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Business

A Summer of Discontent for Eastern German Farmers

The EU's plan to cut direct subsidies to large farms will hit eastern German farmers harder than those in any other region in Europe. Thousands of jobs are at stake in a region grappling with staggering unemployment.

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Fields of gold: Bureaucrats in gray Brussels are a world away from Helmut Richter's farm in Brandenburg.

Helmut Richter paces the dirt tracks covering the perimeter of his farm in an Audi station wagon. He's checking in on hundreds of workers who are overseeing the mechanical milking of cows and the watering of fields of carrots, asparagus and cucumbers using a newly installed sprinkler system that saves the farm water and money.

Richter is the manager of the Unterspreewald farming cooperative in the idyllic town of Dürrenhofe in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. He's long prided himself on Unterspreewald's environmentally progressive techniques: The farm uses expensive, ecologically friendly fertilizers and an irrigation system that radically cuts back on the amount of water needed to produce crops.

But Richter faces new hurdles these days that have shifted his concentration from the coming October harvest to agricultural reforms being debated hundreds of kilometers away in Brussels.

If reforms approved by the European Commission earlier this month are ratified by the European Union's 15 member countries, Richter fears, Unterspreewald may have to revert to the kinds of industrial farming techniques that both German politicans and European policy-makers are pushing to abandon in the wake of food scares ranging from mad cow- to foot-and-mouth disease.

The Commission's proposed reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would starkly reduce the amount of government aid his farm gets. EU Agricultural Commissioner Franz Fischler wants to cap the current direct subsidy payments to farms over 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in size at 300,000 euro ($300,150) per year. In the past, German farms received annual payments from Brussels that often surpassed the million euro mark.

Another key reform component is the uncoupling of subsidies from crops that are grown. In the past, for example, the EU has provided the equivalent of income insurance for the producers of agricultural products -- from wheat to beef -- in order to provide farmers with protection from cheaper imports.

The Commission says it now wants to divert the funds toward rural development programs that promote sustainable farming and environmentally friendly production methods.

Many parts of the reforms are still in draft form, but one aspect is crystal clear: The reforms will handicap large-scale and industrial farms, like the 2,400 hectare operation Richter runs with six other associates, and instead focus on smaller family run and organic farms. Agricultural industry organizations estimate that 90 percent of the planned cuts would be directed at eastern German farming operations.

Next Page: "We will have to eliminate environmentally friendly farming methods"