Opinion : David Richardson 11/02/05

MAIK FLATTEN runs 120ha (296 acres) in the village of Koslar a few kilometres west of Cologne, Germany. He grows wheat for sale to the highest bidder and sugar beet on contract to the local processor. But his main crops are grass and forage maize to provide fodder for his 80 Holstein cows, which average about 8300 litres per lactation.

His farm and his herd are the biggest in the area. Most farms are well under 100ha (246 acres) and the average herd is about 40 cows. That is those who are left, for German farmers, fed up with low prices, have been getting out of milk production as fast as those in Britain. A few years ago, almost every holding had dairy cows, he told me, but these days the nearest dairy farm is 10km away.

Mr Flatten, on the other hand, who farms in partnership with his ageing father and mother, wants to expand to 100 cows. He believes the farm can carry more if he reduces arable cropping and he reckons milk will still be more profitable than wheat if it stays at current prices, and better than sugar beet after the EU regime has been reformed.

The co-op that buys his milk is paying 33 cents/litre (22.9p/litre) including quality bonus, which he says is not enough. But it leaves a small margin provided he does not pay himself too much. He is well aware that milk is being imported into Germany from Holland whose border is only a couple of hours’ tanker drive away. But he loves his way of life and is ready to accept the challenge of increasing production and improving efficiency to live with the competition and EU reforms.

Even so, he has a nice little earner installed on top of his milk tank. It is a coin in the slot milk vending machine so that people from the village can come into the dairy, which opens onto the main street, to help themselves to fresh milk that the machine measures and pumps into their cans. There is a sign on the machine warning customers that the milk has not been pasteurised and that they are recommended to boil it before use. It seems doubtful that many do.

modern parlour

Meanwhile, the production of a couple of cows per year is sold through this gadget at 60 cents/litre (41.6p).

The Flattens also have the advantage that the farm has good buildings, a modern milking parlour and carries little debt. The family has been farming in the area for 16 generations, so were well established when, 10 years ago, their previous farm was compulsorily purchased by an opencast coal mining operation.

The coal it mines feeds a purpose-built power station that provides energy to the industrial and urban areas around it. It”s been operational for 50 years and seems likely to continue for another 50 – displacing entire communities as it extends.

Mr Flatten was coy about how much compensation his family received from the energy company, but it was clear that it enabled them to buy a bigger farm than they had before and to purchase the necessary equipment to farm it as efficiently as possible. His family tradition and heritage apart, it seems likely the mining did him a favour. Indeed, it was clear he felt fortunate compared with some of his farming neighbours.

So, was he content with the way the German government was running his industry? I’m not sure I got an accurate translation from my interpreter, but contentment was obviously not part of it. “Our agriculture minister Renate Kunast represents the Green Party in the coalition government. She doesn”t understand agriculture and makes speeches and policies that prove she does not know what she is talking about,” he told me.

“We farming people are only 2.5% of the population now and we are too few to matter to most German consumers. If Germany imports more and more food farmers will go out of business even faster than now and the German countryside, which consumers claim to enjoy, will be abandoned. The situation is serious. A change of policy is urgent.”

I was in Germany during the week in which DEFRA announced that total income from farming in this country had fallen by 7.5% last year compared with 2003, which some had hoped might be the start of an upturn.

Translated, the words I was hearing meant precisely the same as I would have heard at any market or gathering of farmers in this country. Only the language was different.