Co-operation is the name of the game for Eberhard Schultze.

After nearly 30 years of farming, he has played a key role in updating the agricultural systems of the former East Germany, but collaboration with neighbouring farmers has been part of his approach from the start.

He was born in 1950 on a typical mixed farm in Lower Saxony, but the 40 dairy cows and the pigs were sold before his eighth birthday to focus on arable production.

“We were living on very fertile soil – the best in Germany – and from that time on sugar beet covered 33% of our fields and still does today.”

Until then a typical farmer’s son, Mr Schultze took a leap of faith in 1967, when he won a place on a national exchange programme to the United States.

He attended high school in rural Michigan, working on local farms at the weekend and during the holidays.

“America opened my eyes for a wider view on opportunities, tolerance to other people, open discussion and political criticism compared to the more narrow-minded mentality in rural Germany.”

After obtaining a degree in agricultural economics, Mr Schultze and his new wife joined the family farm in 1976 and immediately set about expanding.

They rented a further 65ha (160 acres), doubling the farm’s size.

And he soon saw a fresh opportunity when a representative from a potato company visited in search of land to rival the loam of Holland.

“We started with five farmers growing 50ha of Bintje.

Then, in 1982 I established a potato growers’ cooperative, which is still active today.

“Now it has a store for 60,000t of Russet Burbanks grown on 900ha by 100 farmers.

The potatoes are exclusively for McDonalds.”

Mr Schultze seized another chance in 1984, when he won a place on the Worshipful Company of Farmers course at Wye College.

He describes it as vital encouragement for new enterprises and, sure enough, upon his return to Saxony, he rented another 90ha (225 acres) of potato land and took a further 300ha (700 acres) under management – 200 miles from the farm.

After seven good years, he began to leave the daily work of the farm behind.

Starting work for a foundation with tenants on 11,000ha (27,500 acres) of land, he gave up the chairmanship of the potato
co-op as well as his leased land.

For five exciting years, Mr Schultze worked as a valuer and arbitrator in the privatisation of socialist collectives and co-operatives in East Germany.

He also set up a machinery co-op and contracting business with seven local farmers.

“Co-operation makes business more effective with increasing opportunities in farm size and new enterprises.

We save money, have more market presence in selling and buying and are more flexible in business opportunities.

“When the pound was low, we bought farm machines in the UK and when it was high, we sold chemicals to British farmers.

“I think that farmers in Germany are very much open for diversification, co-operation and vertical integration with the food processing industry.

But out of 340,000 existing farms, only 50,000 are growing in size at present.

New technology and bigger machines will force many farmers out of business.”

Nonetheless, Mr Schultze is optimistic.

In Saxony there are numerous plans to build bioethanol plants that provide heat for the community or other businesses.

And at farm level, many are converting machinery to use rape oil instead of diesel to cut costs.

“My own co-op will change to rape oil exclusively in 2006.

We are convinced we will save at least 15/ha.

“I am positive that in the near future farmers in Germany will switch from food production to combined food and energy production.

The energy future is right at the farm gate.”

sam.fortescue@rbi.co.uk