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Farm fight

Michael ScaturroDecember 17, 2013

Young farmers in eastern Germany are scrambling to find land as the demand for regional and organic products grows. But they can't seem to gain ground as they compete with large multinationals for farmland.

Agriculture in Brandenburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Demand for regional and organic products is higher than ever in eastern Germany as chefs and stores in Berlin commit to local and regional sourcing.

But young farmers say they are being squeezed off their land in the countryside around eastern Germany. They're in competition with Germany-based multinational corporations, which are quickly buying up the land.

This has led land prices to skyrocket, said Beate Thomsen of the farmers' group ABL in an interview with DW.

"We've see land prices double and even triple in some parts of Brandenburg over the last five years," Thomsen said. "Large industrial farm companies are being given incentives to grow corn for, among other things, biofuel."

Organic farming dream

In the sleepy farming village of Seelow - just 30 minutes from the Polish border - 28-year-old Johannes Erz is building what he hopes will become a fully integrated organic farm over the next five years.

Erz on his farm holding a chicken
Erz also raises chickens to sell organic eggsImage: DW/M. Scaturro

He's been farming for a year. His plot is tiny by any standard - just 0.3 hectare - but it represents his best attempt at breaking into the organic farming business.

Erz isn't from a farming family. His parents were schoolteachers in a small town outside of Stuttgart, but he said he was always fascinated by farming as a child. And yet, one year in, farming isn't making enough to pay the bills yet. So Erz has another full-time job.

"My job can basically be described as financially driving this area forward," he said. "I consult to other farms about seeds and planting techniques and things like that."

He says Brandenburg needs more small farmers to produce the organic products that city dwellers in Berlin, Hamburg, and elsewhere want to buy.

"There are only 60 or 70 professionally run farms here," Erz said. "That's not that many compared to the state of Baden-Württemberg."

Biofuel boom

Another difference to farms in Baden-Würtemburg, and Bavaria - or in France, for that matter - is that farms in eastern Germany are huge. That's partially due to history, as the East German government encouraged collectivization of farms. Plots of around 2,500 hectares were common.

Tractor ploughing field in early morning
Industrial agricultural interests have been snapping up land in eastern GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ZB

But today, land has become a hot commodity in Germany. Investors from all around the world want to buy in - especially companies that produce biofuel.

One major player in the German biofuels industry is KTG Agrar, a Hamburg-based grain and maize grower. KTG is said to own over 40,000 hectares of farmland in Brandenburg.

Companies like KTG Agrar are able to pay double or triple the going price for land. Low interest rates and comparatively low land costs in this area incentivize multinational companies in completely unrelated businesses to get into farming in eastern Germany.

"For example, the Steinhoff furniture company owns at least 7,000 hectares in eastern Germany," Beate Thomsen of the farmers' group ABL explained. "The average small farmer in Germany needs 50 hectares."

Steinhoff Holdings is just one of several German companies investing in large farms in Brandenburg - another is German eyeglass chain Fielmann.

Chicken dung on Erz' farm
Erz is only able to get small or hilly plots for farming in eastern GermanyImage: DW/M. Scaturro

The result is that small players like Erz say they aren't able to compete in the bidding war for land around Brandenburg.

Diverse patchwork

In Erz's case, that has left him buying small, disjointed patches of land. His most recent purchase is a hill-like plot about two kilometres from his main farm.

"You see, there's not much space here," Erz said on a recent tour of the land. "The big farmers can't get their machines in here, it's not profitable for them - it's too small," Erz said.

Organic famers like Erz want to move away from monoculture, or the agricultural practice of growing a single crop over a wide area year after year. Erz says growing only one crop is bad for the land and detrimental to the economies of small towns.

"The large farms are only growing cash crops … crops for biogas," Erz said. He added that jobs are lost because large companies are able to manage their land with few employees.

Biogas facility
Biogas facilities grow rapeseed or corn to ferment into methane to produce heat or electricityImage: LianeM/Fotolia

Seeking seed money

Erz told DW that he would not be willing to partner with the big land-buying companies. His is a lifestyle choice: farmers like Erz want to be independent, no matter the cost.

And Willi Lehnert of the young farmers' lobbying group "Meine Landwirschaft" said that even if the will to partner together existed on both sides, the numbers would never match up.

"I suppose if there were an investor who wanted to work with young farmers, we could do that," Lehnert told DW. But investor would "always be able to get a better return on these big farms in eastern Germany," he added.

Erz thinks the solution is easy: the European Union needs to give cash grants to young farmers to help them get started.

"The grants could be linked to specific goals," Erz noted, like organic farming or agreeing to stay in business for at least 10 years. "But we really need the money to get started!" Erz said.

Erz and his fellow young farming newcomers would like to be able to get from 25,000 to 50,000 euros. They are pressing their case with politicians in Berlin and Brussels, and hope to have a system of subsidies in place next year.