Organic Farming Takes Root in Eastern Germany

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Today's post comes from guest writer Clay Risen, who is currently in Germany for two months on a journalism fellowship.

Christian Lindner, a farmer in Lietzow, about 25 miles east of Berlin, has been bringing his organic produce to Berlin’s farmers’ markets for years—23 years, to be exact. But it’s only in recent years that demand for his products, and that of his fellow eco-farmers around eastern Germany, has taken off.

“Now I deliver food to some of the leading restaurants in Berlin,” he says in between serving customers at the Wednesday market in Winterfeldt Platz. He holds up a plastic basket of cheese. “I have to take this to Altes Europa later today.”

The stereotypical images of eastern Germany—rotting factories, polluted streams, and ghost towns—don’t exactly shout eco-friendliness. Yet in recent years the area around Berlin—primarily in the state of Brandenburg, but also in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen, and the other former East German states—has seen an explosion of organic farming.

Former factory in eastern Germany, courtesy Flickr user Siesja

It’s not all that surprising. The communist German Democratic Republic ran its agricultural industry through massive, inefficient collective farms; after unification, those farms became redundant and were mostly shuttered. Large swaths of that land have since been converted to natural preserves, but some of it, particularly the land closer to large cities, has been sold off to entrepreneurial small farmers looking to exploit the growing demand for organic goods.

It’s a trend that the state governments, still suffering from underdevelopment and high unemployment, hope to exploit.

“The eco-market is booming,” wrote Dieter Woidke, Brandenburg’s minister for agricultural development, the environment, and consumer protection, in a recent report. “Not too long ago organic farmers and stores recalled musli and Birkenstocks. Anyone who has been to a grocery store recently knows how much that has changed.”

Organic farming is big business the world over, and nowhere more so than in eastern Germany. In 2000, the state of Sachsen had just 127 organic farms; eight years later that number had more than doubled, to 304. Sachsen-Anhalt, to its west, has seen similar results: between 2000 and 2008, the number of organic farms there rose from 175 to 305, while the total hectares farmed nearly doubled, from 23,380 to 45,000.

But it is Brandenburg, the breadbasket of Berlin, that is leading the boom: At just below ten percent, it has the highest amount of farmland under organic production anywhere in Germany (the state-level average is 4.7 percent). Starting with just 20 organic farms and about 5,100 hectares in 1990, today it has almost 800, commanding over 130,000 hectares of farmland.

Those farms not only generate higher value-added food products, but eco-tourism as well. At the Brodowin “eco-village,” about an hour northeast of Berlin, for example, visitors can take tours, camp overnight, and even help harvest crops.

Brandenburg hopes that organic farming and related fields like environmental studies can be job engines, as well. In Eberswalde, a commuter suburb between Berlin and Brodowin, students at the local technical college can get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in organic farm management, which cover everything from farming techniques to marketing and sales. According to the state government, the courses are oversubscribed, full of young people frustrated with the lack of industrial and service-sector jobs in the east.

Yet problems remain. To achieve and retain organic labels, farms have to invest significant capital into modern, energy-efficient equipment. And, the efforts of the Eberswalde technical college notwithstanding, the region still lags in the number of workers knowledgeable in sustainable agricultural practices.

But perhaps the biggest problem is logistical. It’s one thing for farmers like Lindner to pack up a truck and ferry their goods to Berlin. It’s another to link those farmers to the national agricultural distribution network, which is still dominated by western German industrial farms. Small farmers not only need good rail connections, but also things like cold-storage facilities, farmers’ banks, and intermediary markets to reduce the substantial risk involved in national agricultural markets.

For now, though, the demand in Berlin, Dresden, and other eastern metropolises is enough to keep farmers like Lindner busy. “I’m worried about competition from the euro market,” he says. But for now, he’s just happy people finally recognize the value of organic produce.

“They finally realize it’s a lot better than Maggi.”

---Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a 2009 Arthur Burns Fellow at der Tagesspiegel in Berlin. He also writes occasionally for The Atlantic Food Channel.

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