Urban agriculture in Germany

Could Munich’s urban farm be a model for Canada, helping improve quality of life in our cities and narrow the urban-rural divide?

If you have never heard of the now-extinct Schlüter tractor brand, what you need to know is that the company produced some famously unique looking machines during its corporate life. Now, this was the first opportunity I’d ever had to see a working Schlüter tractor, and it came in a city — although still on a farm.

That’s because when that chance came to see a Schlüter in person, it was on the Gut Karlshof farm in Munich, Germany.

“This tractor is over 20 years old,” Alfons Bauschmidt, manager of the city’s farming operations said as he toured me around the Gut Karlshof farmyard. “We have one employee who loves Schlüter tractors. He cleans and maintains it with a passion.”

This older Schlüter tractor is kept in top-notch condition by an employee who has a passion for the brand. It’s just one of a large number of machines in the farm fleet.

This older Schlüter tractor is kept in top-notch condition by an employee who has a passion for the brand. It’s just one of a large number of machines in the farm fleet.
photo: Scott Garvey

Such passion has greatly extended the life of this old tractor, and it mirrors the kind of commitment that drives this entire — and also very unique — farm operation.

The Gut Karlshof farm site is located well within the limits of one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, even though it would violate handfuls of bylaws, regulations and zoning restrictions almost anywhere in Canada. The historic farmyard is located on 273 hectares (675 acres) of prime agricultural land, and it and nine other sites called estates in and around the city add up to 6,300 acres farmed by the municipal government.

By German standards, such a farm operation is enormous.

“The city of Munich has 10 of these estates,” confirmed Bauschmidt. “Two of them are located right inside the city and we have an overall agricultural area of 2,549 hectares. We use 1,762 hectares for our own crops or animal husbandry.”

Dr. Alfons Bauschmidt describes how the farm finishes 500 head of feeder cattle each year.

Dr. Alfons Bauschmidt describes how the farm finishes 500 head of feeder cattle each year.
photo: Scott Garvey

Why would a city defy convention and run its own farming operation?

It turns out there are multiple good reasons. To start with, the government already needs to maintain a fleet of agricultural equipment to maintain its large tracts of undeveloped land. Plus, at least one city department needs to buy agricultural commodities.

“It’s our job to supply grain and feed to the zoo in Munich,” Bauschmidt explained. “And we also take care of green spaces within the city. Most are large-scale parks, and we also take care of general areas.”

One remarkable thing about this farm is it gets those city maintenance jobs done without the typical drain on city budgets. Instead, the farm’s income covers those expenses, not to mention supporting 45 employees and running in the black.

“Every year we return a small profit to the city,” said Bauschmidt.

That “small” profit typically amounts to about 200,000 euros annually. That’s about C$300,000!

But there is much more behind the logic for having this urban farm than a cheap way of getting the grass cut in city parks. There is also a unique philosophy here that may be a template for major centres in Canada to consider.

Munich’s leaders see a very long list of benefits to be had by keeping tractors running around town. Helping to maintain a natural ecological balance within the city is one of the big ones.

“The landscape of the city is very beautiful, and we try to be a model of development for other cities,” said Bauschmidt. “The maintenance of our cultural landscape is important. These spaces help provide the city with fresh clean air. These areas provide urban residents with a better climate.”

The micro climate is important; on average, the temperature within the city centre is six to eight degrees hotter than it is at the farmyard, so the goal is to provide green spaces to soften the extremes.

“It’s also very important to have 360 hectares of so-called ecological balance land. We want to preserve the landscape, and there will always be agriculture going on in these compensation areas to make sure we have an ecological balance.”

Animal welfareis a hot topic in Germany. The farm has remodelled its livestock sheds to improve animal welfare. Feeder cattle remain primarily indoors at Gut Karlshof.

Animal welfareis a hot topic in Germany. The farm has remodelled its livestock sheds to improve animal welfare. Feeder cattle remain primarily indoors at Gut Karlshof.
photo: Scott Garvey

And if you’re going to operate a city farm, why not let the public participate and get their hands dirty? To help those who don’t have a green thumb, the farm even prepares all the plots and seeds them before turning over maintenance of them to “an urban farmer” for a year.

“Local residents can get a small plot of land and do some urban gardening,” Bauschmidt continued. “We have six such sites where we offer 600 plots. We do the tilling and planting and hand the plots over to the resident who takes over responsibility for his or her plot.

“This is very popular with families with small children. That was our target group. But it turned out there were many other people who wanted to get involved as well. Many young singles who have a stressful job said they wanted to go do some gardening when they come home in the evening to relax.”

Each plot has 30 or 60 square metres. For 30, residents pay 65 euros (about C$100) per year. That includes the seedlings, use of the tools and the water supply. People just do the maintenance through the course of the year. In the fall the farm takes over again and prepares the plot for next season.

“People can come back the next year,” Bauschmidt added.

For those who don’t want to do that much work but still want to get some farm-fresh vegetables, the on-farm store at Gut Karlshof will sell them a bag and they can go out into one of the farm fields and pick their own on harvesting days.

“We always give people the opportunity to pick their own potatoes on our fields. We use our harvesting machinery, people buy a bag and pick the potatoes off the field.”

The operation also does a lot of direct marketing right from a farmyard store, which sells organic produce and beef from its feeder operation which finishes Simmental-Fleckvieh-cross cattle. It also sells directly to other retailers.

A store in the farmyard direct markets organic beef and produce.

A store in the farmyard direct markets organic beef and produce.
photo: Scott Garvey

“In recent years we’ve seen a growing demand for regional produce, and organic produce in particular,” he said. “We work on the principle of producing regional, healthy foods. We grow wheat, barley and all kinds of grains (as well as corn, beans and vegetables).

“There are many consumers who want to know where their meat comes from, so they come to our farm shop. We have 500 feeders here. We have a marketing contract with a butcher in Munich. Every week they take six head. Our most well-known buyer is the Oktoberfest. During those two weeks, the equivalent of 110 head are eaten by visitors.”

City management hasn’t overlooked the fact that the farm provides a golden opportunity to teach the urban public about where their food comes from.

“Children who grow up in the city don’t have much knowledge about agriculture,” noted Bau­schmidt. “That’s why our estates are open to visits from schools. Even adults can come here and learn about agriculture. Once or twice a year we organize a farm festival. We invite farmers to display and sell their products. People can eat lunch, buy local and regional organic products. We usually get 6,000 to 8,000 visitors. We also organize lectures about topics being discussed in agriculture, and we invite politicians and agricultural experts.”

The farm grows all its own livestock feed and uses compost for fertilizer. As well, grass clippings from city parks along with some corn and grass silage support the farm’s other revenue source. “We have a biogas facility that has a 590 kilowatt per hour capacity,” Bauschmidt pointed out. “We produce enough energy to supply 1,500 households, and we also have solar panels on many of our buildings.”

Primarily, however, while these economics help the city to farm, they don’t explain why it’s involved in farming in the first place. Instead, the drivers are quality of life and the beauty of rural landscape.

“Land is a very important asset here, and there are many competing demands for it,” Bauschmidt said before adding something that many Canadian farmers would echo. “You cannot preserve the agricultural landscape without farming it.”

This article was originally published as “In a German city” in the May/June 2016 issue of Country Guide

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