American journalist Linda Ellerbee once said that people everywhere are pretty much the same. “It’s only that our differences are more susceptible to definition than our similarities,” she said. After participating in a recent agriculture fellowship in Germany, it is clear that both U.S. and German farmers share more similarities than may initially meet the eye.
The Genn Family, father and sons, rear bulls in Wehr, Germany.
German farmers have a deep love for what they do, which is paralleled with their commitment to their animals, the future of their industry and the good of their country, which is not so different from U.S. farmers. But, as people are pretty much the same everywhere, so, too, are consumers, activists and the media. And because of this, German and U.S. farmers are also facing very similar challenges with how they farm in a world that is becoming more and more removed from agriculture.
While two-thirds of Germans live in rural areas and every eighth job in Germany depends on agriculture, farming is not the thriving sector it once was. Like many other countries, urban encroachment, stringent regulations and food politics are forcing farms out of production in Germany.
Farm stands, such as this one right outside of Frankfurt, help German farmers connect with consumers.
Seventy percent of the German population resides outside of the cities, yet a sentimental majority of people want to see a “romantic” countryside. A farm with more than 10 cows is considered too many. And while German farms are relatively small by U.S. standards, this growing feel-good sentiment is hindering German farms from expanding and diversifying.
Consumer opinion is displayed most prevalently on German grocery store shelves. Because of a growing push for sustainability from activists groups, more and more grocery chains are requiring sustainable certification on food products. According to German food policy experts, it’s very difficult to get a grocer to sell a product if it’s not deemed sustainable. Yet, grocers will not pay additional for sustainable products, the cost stays within the food chain.
As in America, animal welfare has become a hot-button political issue in Germany. Because of the 2009 European Union ban on hen cages, many German farmers have moved their hens to other countries with less rigid regulations, only to sell them back into the German system. As the saying goes, “Aus den augen, aus dem sinn,” or out of sight, out of mind.
Unlike America, there is little open discussion in Germany on most issues, biotech crops being a prime example. Ninety-eight percent of Germans are against biotech food technologies. The issue was null and void from the get-go. Currently, the country is finding itself in the same situation with the use of nuclear power. After the crisis of Fukushima in Japan, without much thought or discussion, activist groups have been on a crusade to abolish all German nuclear energy plants.
Unfortunately, for German agriculture organizations, there’s not enough money in their budgets to meet these activists head on. So, farming groups are instead using their resources to train farmers to be spokespeople. They are having conversations with consumers and becoming more transparent on their farms. German farmers are getting personal. They are “andere seiten aufziehen” – changing tune and getting tough. Sound familiar?
By defining our similarities instead of focusing on our differences, German and U.S. farmers will likely find they are very close to one another in their ideals and challenges, sharing more commonality than an ocean can divide.
Tracy Grondine is director of media relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. In October, she visited Germany as a McCloy Fellow in Agriculture as part of an exchange program supported by the American Council on Germany.