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German farmers face tough road ahead

Timothy Rooks in Berlin
January 20, 2024

Farming has always been hard work. Machinery and technology have made great improvements but come at a great cost. Every year, fewer people follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Why is this happening?

Cows' heads seen in a stall
Farmers have it harder than ever beforeImage: Timothy Rooks/DW

On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Early mornings, long hours. No spontaneous vacations. Constant worry about weather, a lack of workers, foreign competition, succession planning and all of the living things in your care. And now a new government plan to phase out tax relief on agricultural diesel, a subsidy that has been in place for more than 70 years.

This is the life of many small-scale farmers in Germany. So maybe it is no wonder that since 2020, the country has lost around 7,800 farms. That corresponds to an average of 2,600 businesses closing shop each year.

During that same time, the number of people working in farming sank 7% to 876,000. Of those remaining, 45% are family members, according to the federal statistics agency Destatis.

Yet, while the number of farms and employees keeps sinking, the total area farmed has remained nearly unchanged since 2010. Today 255,000 farms work 16.6 million hectares (41 million acres) of land, which simply means the remaining farms are just getting bigger.

German farmers are feeling the squeeze

The Green Week to the rescue

New research by DZ Bank is even more pessimistic and sees a "retirement wave" that will help end the centuries' old system of small family farms. After crunching the numbers, they forecast the number of working farms in 2040 to plummet to 100,000. At the same time, they calculate that the average farm will more than double in size.

But is bigger always better? Many family-run farms don't think so and have let their feelings be seen and heard with a weeklong tractor protest across the country.

This is the background to the International Green Week in Berlin, a huge 10-day agriculture and food industry trade show that opened January 19. With 1,400 exhibitors from 60 countries, the fair is meant to highlight regions by bringing what they do to the capital for visitors and policymakers to see.

The huge halls are filled with stands offering food and drink. Other areas are blooming with fresh soil, flowers, veggies and fruit. It smells like spring even though a dusting of snow covers everything outside.

Not even higher food prices can help farmers

Figuring out what a farmer actually earns is difficult. Numerous factors like what type of farming — conventional or organic — what is grown — crops, livestock or a mix — where it's done, if family is involved, and subsidies muddy the waters.

One thing is for sure: Full-time farmers work longer hours than most other employees. The North-Rhine Westphalia Chamber of Agriculture calculated that while a regular 40-hour job comes to 2,088 hours a year, a full-time farming family member racks up 2,300 hours. For the self-employed there is no minimum wage.

Subsidies also make up a large portion of income and are often based on size. They come from the European Union and Germany and encourage farmers to do things that may otherwise not make immediate financial sense, like leaving areas fallow or investing in crop diversity.

A man standing in front of a wine booth
Peter Terges says bureaucracy is a huge deterrent to working in farming or winemakingImage: Timothy Rooks/DW

Peter Terges knows about hard work. At his winery, in Trier close to the Luxembourg border, getting up at 3 a.m. is nothing special during the fermentation phase.

A specialist for ice wine, he has been in the business for nearly 55 years but has no one willing to take over. Part of his 6 hectares is leased to someone else; what will happen later is an open question.

Making farming more attracting will not be an easy task. "There is simply too much bureaucracy and paperwork," he told DW. "Things just have to be made easier. Farming and making wine are just not what they used to be." It is a common complaint.

Doing their job and preserving the countryside

Especially livestock farmers have increasingly come under scrutiny as interest in animal welfare has increased.

But these farmers don't deserve this bad reputation. In fact, they help preserve the countryside and keep idyllic country scenes beloved by tourists alive, said Nora Hammer, general manager of the German Livestock Association. They also supply "essential" fertilizer for organic farming. 

Vegetables grouped together at a stand
Around 11% of the land farmed in Germany is tended by some sort of organic farming methodImage: Timothy Rooks/DW

At the same time, she recognizes that interest in farming is waning and not every business can make it. "Well-positioned businesses have the best chance of success," she told DW.

For her this means farms that are on a good financial ground with little debt and located in easily accessible places. Having someone on hand to take over one day is helpful, too. It is even better if they have options like biogas, solar and wind energy as add-ons.

To help support German farmers, Hammer calls for more uniform rules across the country that would allow them to quickly convert parts of their business and deal with complicated building codes or changes in consumer tastes. Currently, confusing and partly contradictory regulations slow things down or drive up costs. All this frustration makes it hard to find new, enthusiastic farmers willing to take up the reins.

In 1970, farmers contributed 3.3% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Today that is down to 1%, according to the DZ Bank study. Even though the overall economic importance of farming is decreasing, they still play a vital role: They supply the country with basic foodstuffs.

At a time when countries want to become more independent of imports from abroad, this role could become increasingly important. Now, someone just needs to convince the farmers.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

German farmers vow to fight on after week of protest

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's team of business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.