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The German question

Now that they’ve recovered from communism, these East German farms worry about the excesses of democracy

The fall of the iron curtain in l989 brought democracy to the former East Germany (DDR). For farmers like Bernd Klänhammer at Penkun, an hour and a half northeast of Berlin, it also brought, for the first time in their careers, the freedom to make their own decisions.

Of course, Klänhammer wasn’t the only one looking for opportunity.

Farmers from the West sensed opportunity too, some of them wanting to swoop in and go big, while others like Frank Hartmann eyed a return to the family’s land.

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“There was this atmosphere of excitement and optimism,” Hartmann, 53, recalls. He’d just finished agriculture college and was preparing to come back to where the family had migrated near Hannover, in the former West Germany. (His grandparents and parents had fled there in l956 when the Russian occupation became more repressive.)

In East Germany, the Hartmann’s home farm at Wustrow along the North Sea had been annexed into a state farm, as had happened to almost all farms in the DDR.

After the fall of communism, the lands that had been aggregated into these state farms were distributed back to the original owners.

When the news came, a comment from his mother at the breakfast table sent Hartmann on his way to Wustrow, wondering if he could rent enough land in addition to the family’s 15 hectares to make a viable venture.

Today he farms 290 hectares, the only crop farmer on the otherwise marshy peninsula. Son Kim, 21, just joined him a year ago.

Squeezed between the North Sea and the Saaler Bodden, Frank Hartmann gets half his income from EU grants, but is sharpening his entrepreneurial skills to ensure a future for son Kim.
photo: Supplied

The taste of freedom

The fall of communism was a heady time, remembers Bernd Klänhammer of Penkun, 53. “Everyone talked about the freedom to travel,” he recalls. “I just saw the freedom to finally farm as I wished.”

He too was young, recently married, with both he and his wife Berith just out of university with agriculture degrees. “We’ve got to get on this,” he told his dad.

The Klänhammers have farmed in Penkun, a rural village near the Polish border, since the early 1800s. When the Second World War began, Bernd’s father owned 60 hectares, a large farm for that time. With the Russian occupation, every farm over 100 hectares was expropriated. Farms over 50 hectares were taxed so heavily that it frustrated any efforts to succeed. Bernd’s father split his land between his siblings and himself to break it into smaller parcels.

Later, most farmland and inventory were annexed into state farms but Penkun was fortunate to have a lenient overseer. Farmers there were given more freedom to manage the state farm as they saw fit.

Today Bernd and Berith farm 500 hectares and manage a modern hog barn with 900 pigs. Son Jonas, 19, is studying agriculture at the same university that his father and grandfather attended, and he is the planned successor.

After the fall

The fall of communism was both exciting and challenging. Most former owners who had their farmland returned actually had little interest or ability to farm, so they rented or sold to farmers like Klänhammer or Hartmann. “The liquidation of the state farms required new structures for farms and agriculture services,” Hartmann explains. The “new” farmers had to start from scratch. They had land but little inventory. Assets on the state farms were mostly outdated.

“A huge problem was the lack of capital of the new farmers of the DDR times,” Hartmann says.

Western farmers and companies saw the opportunity in the new lands and came east. They had the advantage of capital and new technology. Not all of them stayed. “Many of my agriculture college colleagues who went to farm in the East threw in the towel after a few years,” Hartmann says.

Often, the newcomers were also ostracized by their new communities, although Hartmann had the advantage of his family name and background.

Almost 30 years later, the farmers who stuck with it have caught up to the West, and the lessons learned from those early years are being applied to new opportunities and challenges.

In the maze left by the fall of communism, the Hartmanns rent from 25 land owners.
photo: Supplied

From the highest point of their land, which is only 15 metres above sea level, the Hartmanns look over the glistening North Sea just to the west and the brackish water of the Saaler Bodden on the east. The distance between the two bodies is hardly five kilometres, with Wustrow and its reed-covered fisher houses between.

For farmers, this may sound like a challenge, but the scenery and the mild climate make this one of the most popular tourist destinations of Germany, swelling Wustrow from its winter population of 600 up to 6,000 in peak season.

Almost every acre of cropland you can see there is cultivated by “Bauer Hartmann,” as the sign on his truck reads. The large part of the peninsula is marshy pasture and hayland for cattle. Hartmann owns 30 of his 290 hectares. He also rents a multitude of small plots from 25 former farmers. These go back to the time of the seafarers, when sailors were required to own two hectares so their families were cared for if they failed at sea.

“It’s pretty complicated,” Hartmann admits of his rental contracts. He was able to consolidate the small holdings into larger tracts for easier farming, planting a rotation of canola, wheat, barley and peas. Minimum or no tillage helps to improve the structure of the sandy soils.

There’s no more cropland available around the farm. “We have to do more with what we have,” son Kim declares. Currently, they are transitioning from conventional to organic farming. It’s not totally due to a value system. “My surroundings demand it,” Hartmann says. Tourists run when they see his sprayer.

Some of those tourists are his own tourists too. He rents out apartments and invites tourists to riding holidays on a working farm, with 14 horses to hire, plus riding lessons.

The tack room will have to relocate, though, to make room for an on-farm store. Eggs from their chickens and the meat from their beef herd of 30 cows will be sold here. The herd is growing. Vegetables will replace some of the current crops, and the Hartmanns are considering a cleaning and processing plant.

“The youth taking over the farms today are highly motivated,” Hartmann observes.

Meanwhile, down the road

In Penkun there’s plenty of land around the Klänhammer farm. The farming village is just 30 kilometres from the Polish harbour of Stettin. It boasts its own castle, and is surrounded by vast fields reminiscent of Western Canada. A 2,000-hectare farm is not unusual here.

Communist land reform was devastating to the small farmers, but the winners are those who were in the position to buy and rent the land once it became free. “We went to our relatives and friends and asked if they would rent us their land,” Klänhammer says.

The Klänhammers were able to start farming in l991 with 100 hectares. That first year Bernd, his brother and his father farmed together. The next year they separated the business. “That was the best decision we made,” Bernd says.

But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “We didn’t even have money for one day’s diesel for the tractor,” Klänhammer recalls. A loan from an aunt got them started, plus a government grant covering the costs of inputs for the first year (repayable if the business was exited within the next 12 years).

When Country Guide visited, a John Deere 8230 was hooked up to an eight bottom reversible plow. A Claas Lexion 750 combine stood in the shed, and the grain storage was filled with wheat on aeration.

The family has come a long way from that beginning. Like any Canadian grain farmer, Bernd works the market, pre-pricing a portion of his crop. Canola goes by truck to port, mostly to Rostock but sometimes to Stettin; sugar beets to the nearby factory in Amklum. Much of the cereals and peas are used on farm as hog feed.

Grain production is gaining economic clout, but the average German is further from the farm.
photo: Supplied

The risk of democracy

Now, the evolving agriculture environment in Germany is a source of uncertainty about the future. “I’m convinced our farm will survive and grow,” Klänhammer says. “We’ve made it through a lot of upheaval.

He’s cautious, though, about growing much bigger.

“I see a certain danger whenever fewer people own more land,” Klänhammer says. It means the larger part of the population has no understanding of agriculture, which adds to the risk. “Yet I am still optimistic.”

Meanwhile, the regulation of agriculture keeps growing. “All these rules that restrict farmers will increase,” Kim Hartmann believes. “The paperwork will continue to grow. That’s what really worries me.”

There’s another concern too. EU crop farmers receive 270 euros per hectare in subsidy payments. That’s half the Hartmann farm income.

“I don’t know where this is taking us,” Kim wonders.

But unfettered capitalism is having an impact on them too. After the fall of communism, land was cheap to rent and purchase. Recently laws were changed so non-agricultural companies, such as the power companies, can invest in farmland. That has driven prices to where neither of these farmers see themselves purchasing land in the near future.

What worries both families too is the weakening legal certainty for farmers. “You can have the authorization to build a hog barn, get the credit and start building,” Berith Klänhammer says. “Then some protesters come along and the court will say your authorization wasn’t valid or it is rescinded. A legal authorization seems to have no validity.”

Hearing her, Bernd adds, “It all reminds us of DDR times. We have a lot of freedom, yes, but… all these games.


In nearby Tantow

Tom Landsmann apologizes for his tousled look. “I’ve just come in from a night of hunting,” he explains. “Come on in, look around. I don’t have anything to hide!” If the big man looks more like a Canadian than a German, there’s a reason: 20 years spent ranching near Rocky Mountain House, Alta., made him feel most at home in a cowboy hat and boots.

That mix of Canadian and West German has served him well while growing his 2,000-hectare grain farm in Tantow, near Penkun.

Aggressive growth is paying off for transplanted Canadian Tom Landsmann.
photo: Supplied

Unlike neighbouring eastern farmers, Landsmann has no background of repression. From the beginning he carried the maximum debt the bank would give him. He purchases every available piece of land. His aggressiveness doesn’t endear him to his new community. “They’re jealous because I own all this land,” Landsmann believes. He doesn’t care. He does care about his 84-year-old father, who is the only reason he came back to Germany. In l996 Landsmann’s parents had immigrated to Alberta from northern Germany with their two teenage children, to a section of ranch land. All Landsmann ever wanted to do was farm. The ranch grew to two sections and a 500-head pig barn was added. Landsmann’s mother passed away in 1996. His father was lost and homesick for Germany. Landsmann saw the opportunities in eastern Germany and took his father back.

Landsmann is homesick for Canada, but as long as his father is alive he will continue to drive the farm in Tantow forward. Despite the drought last summer and autumn, his fall-seeded canola beside the farm buildings was thriving, contrary to many of his neighbours. “I plow, then immediately pack and seed to conserve moisture.” Others wait for a couple of days before seeding, Landsmann explains. “I always do the opposite of everyone else.” When Landsmann first came to Tantow he practised no tillage. In recent years he’s returned to plowing, mostly because of cost. Chemicals are expensive and weed resistance a problem.

A recent newspaper article depicting the harvest season on the Landsmann Farms could have come out of Western Canada. The combines never stop except for a hot supper, which is brought to the field. “It’s important that everyone takes a break,” Landsmann has learned. It’s good for morale too.

Landsmann might not care so much about his community but he does about his employees. His plows are all reversible, but he keeps a one-way plow just for his oldest employee. “He never operated any other plow and won’t change now,” Landsmann smiles. He stops to chat briefly with a short, swarthy man in black cut-off shorts. “That guy will do anything for my father,” he says fondly. At the end of the working day he and his father sit down with his crew for a beer. “That’s when I find out what’s happening on the farm.”

There’s another land deal in the offing. Landsmann’s thinking of selling off a current land piece to purchase it. What he won’t sell is the forest with his hunting grounds. “Someone would have to dig very deep into their pockets to get that!”

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