By: Nicole Sevrey
Twenty-three Michigan and Indiana Farm Bureau members recently participated in an international study tour to Germany and Belgium, Sept. 1-11. The group saw and heard first-hand how the region's agricultural makeup is heavily influenced by Europe's rich history, Germany's large-scale efforts to increase renewable energy production, and consumer demand for affordable, non-GMO food products.
As the group's plane made its approach to the Berlin airport it was hard to miss the wind turbine clusters dotting the landscape. While the Germans lead the world in wind energy production-the most visible element of their renewable energy efforts-they're just as serious about using biomass to fuel the nation's 10,000 biogas converters.
The delegation visited four dairy farms with biogas converters that use manure and silage to generate energy in the form of heat and electricity for the farm and a number of local homes and businesses depending on the unit's size.
Farm operators explained it was profitable to install the equipment-heavily subsidized by the government-because inputs were readily available and they were guaranteed a 20-year fixed-rate price for energy supplied to the grid.
But rate reductions, record-low milk prices and a considerable amount of crops going directly into the converters, several farmers said if they were starting again today, they wouldn't install them.
"I think it would take government subsidies to make it profitable because of the infrastructure size and the cost of electricity in the Midwest is generally low compared to other parts of the country," said Phil Ramsey, a study tour participant from Indiana Farm Bureau.
Balancing agriculture and energy production isn't a new issue in Germany. The country's west central region has long been impacted by the coal mining industry that uprooted entire villages even as it created infrastructure and job opportunities. Although coal plants provide 20 percent of the country's energy supply today, experts believe increasing environmental regulation will eventually lead to a phase- out.
Following a tour of an active coal-mining site, the group met Rollgen Hubertus, whose family farms 1,000 acres used for coal mining nearly 30 years ago.
To say the family is adaptable is an understatement. Hubertus outlined a number of hoops the family had to jump through to reclaim the land, but made a point that it gave the family an opportunity to restructure their business for the better.
The family raised market hogs for years, specifically so their manure would restore the soil's productivity levels. Once that was achieved, they transitioned back to crop production and now raise a mix of sugar beets, potatoes, corn, green peas, wheat, barley and Christmas trees.
Providing even more perspective, the group toured Saerbeck Bioenergy Park, a model for community energy independence financed, in part, through a government-run grant program. The 225-acre facility is home to seven wind turbines, 24,000 solar modules and two biogas converters (one municipal waste, one agricultural). The park provides electricity and heat to the city's 7,000 homes and businesses and transfers its surplus to a regional grid. A community-supported project, the park has a steering committee consisting of city officials, business owners, teachers and other community members.
The size and makeup of U.S. and German agriculture are drastically different, but the two countries are strong partners, accounting for 50 percent of the global GDP and a third of all trade. Specific to agriculture, the U.S. exchanges raw commodities for processed agricultural goods from Germany such as spirits, wine, beer, cheese and bakery products.
During their time abroad, the Michigan and Indiana farmers conversed with agricultural trade policy experts including Kelly Stange with the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, Cornelia Berns with Germany's Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Wojtek Talko with the European Union (EU) Commission.
Combined, the three presentations sent a strong message: EU citizens' perception of U.S. agriculture and disapproval for biotechnology is a barrier to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There is mistrust among consumers and a misconception that our productions standards are lower. According to Talko, the EU Commission will have to address these false perceptions to reach agreement on TTIP.
"Unlike the U.S., the EU does not have an executive that can use a bully pulpit or issue executive orders," said Talko. "There must be agreement among all 28 members."
If the U.S. finds success working with the EU to educate consumers about our nation's agricultural practices, both countries have a lot to gain from TTIP.
Throughout the tour, the group saw several example of farms that diversified their business to fulfill consumer demand in niche markets. Following are highlights from the stops.
Hans Jurgen and Martina Reuer hosted the group for lunch on the couple's 10th generation family farm. In addition to growing 500 acres of corn, wheat and sugar beets, the Reuers sell eggs, homemade sausages, jams and baked goods at their farm store. They also rent space out to community members for meetings and parties.
The group visited two farms raising and breeding Belgian Blue beef cattle. Ninety percent of the Belgian Blue beef produced is consumed domestically. The breed is popular because of its ability to convert feed into lean muscle which results in reduced fat content and increased tenderness. Compared to Angus or Hereford cattle, Belgian Blues have an approximately 10 percent higher market weight. Another interesting fact: because of their stout conformation, most Belgian Blue calves are delivered via c-section.
Located just north of Berlin, Lubars is a tight-knit village comprised of seven families that farm 625 acres of hay, oats and rye, primarily used to feed the village's 350 equine residents. Lubars is popular among Berlin equestrians because its proximity allows them to take public transportation to and from the farms where they board their horses.
For more coverage of the international study tour, visit https://www.michfb.com/MI/Germany/.