Many Canadian family farms proudly display a “century farm” plaque at their front gates, signifying at least 100 years of uninterrupted family ownership. But as impressive as that may be, 100 years hardly registers on the European scale. The Graf family of North Rhine-Westphalia, a province in northern Germany, can trace its ownership back to 1340.
Nor is that their biggest difference from just about any farm in Canada.
Behind the farm’s castle (yes, a real castle), a phalanx of 350-plus-year-old buildings encloses a square, paved courtyard. The buildings include the current manager’s residence, which once housed the many labourers required to keep a non-mechanized farm operating. “The buildings are from 1746,” says farm manager Maximilian von Laer through a translator, as he stands near his front door.
Taking care of those old buildings is a job in itself. “One-third of my time is spent on building management,” von Laer says.
On the outside, all the buildings retain much of their original appearance and look like they could be a movie set, if it wasn’t for the modern equipment parked in front of them. Most of the structures on the farm are designated historical buildings, with strict regulations in place governing their use.
That means changes can only be made to them with prior government approval. “You have to ask them and it takes a lot of time,” von Laer explains. But time isn’t the only cost. While about five per cent of historical building maintenance expenses are paid by the German government, when you consider the property has 12.5 acres of roofs alone (some of them thatched), the overall costs are significant.
Working within a framework of strict regulations is nothing new for von Laer — or other farmers in Germany. Signing on to accept EU government agricultural subsidies means agreeing to comply with a long list of standards for such things as chemical and fuel storage, which are subject to periodic inspections.
The Graf farm is the largest operation in North Rhine-Westphalia, with about 3,700 acres of cropland under its control. (Of that, 95 per cent of it is directly owned.) The farm also manages about 8,600 acres of woodlot.
It takes some travelling to get to all that real estate. Fields are spread out over what used to be five separate farms, four of which have been added to the Graf holdings during the last 20 years. The farthest is 54 kilometres away from the castle. In all, there are 130 individual fields with an average size of about 30 acres each.
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The family has also invested in a 4,900-acre farm in the former East Germany, which von Laer sees as almost an exact opposite to the one under his management and much more like a Canadian farm. “It has a small house, big machines and big fields,” he says with a smile. It has its own manager, too, and is run independently of the Westphalia operation.
To keep his farm running smoothly, von Laer has an assistant and three full-time tractor drivers on staff. In the summer, the farm also takes on seasonal workers. That has even included hiring groups of schoolkids on their summer breaks to hand pick the small, jagged stones that litter many of the farm’s fields and cause a lot of tire damage.
The woodlots keep the farm’s regular workers busy during the winter, where trees are selectively felled and sold for timber or provided to the Graf family’s small furniture-making business, which is located only a short walk from the farm’s gate in the surrounding village of Fürstenberg.
A few decades ago, that shop would have provided all the village’s furniture, von Laer explains, and a large percentage of the people living there would have earned their living chopping wood in the forest that runs to its edge.
The farm also operates a large-scale chicken operation that cycles through production of 160,000 birds every 44 days. All the manure they produce is fed into an on-farm biogas production system. Methane fuel created from processing the manure and farm-produced wood chips is used in an electrical power generation system recently installed in one of the farmyard’s historical buildings.
The wood chips come from fields planted with fast-growing tree varieties, not the higher-quality hardwood timber in the woodlots. The recently installed biogas-powered generator produces 500 kilovolts of electricity, with any excess sold to the main power grid. “We want to be energy independent,” says von Laer.
A large furnace near the generator uses the same wood chips as its fuel source for heating the chicken barns and other farm buildings. The heat created by the generator engine is also recycled to supplement the main heating system.
In the field, the farm’s six MFWD tractors rang- ing from 200 to 380 horsepower and its two combines are used to produce and harvest mainly winter wheat, barley, sugar beets and winter rapeseed crops, all non-GMO of course. Six hundred acres of wheat are set aside for feed in the poultry operation.
To maintain its agricultural tax rate advantages, the operation does not do custom work, unlike many other large-scale European operations. It would pay a higher tax bill if the total off-farm income exceeded 50,000 euros (C$75,000). But it does co-operate with a group of other local sugar beet growers, using its equipment to harvest the group’s combined 1,500 acres of that crop each year.
Yields for dry grain corn in that region typically run about 10 tonnes per hectare, (160 bu./ac.), 55 tonnes for silage corn (22 tonnes/ac.), 4.2 tonnes for winter rapeseed (74 bu./ac.) and 10 tonnes for wheat (150 bu./ac.).
Most of the farm’s crops are contracted directly to domestic processors. While there are brokers who purchase grain and route some of it for export, von Laer believes the farm can net better prices by dealing directly with end-users.
Just as farmers in Canada suffered through the long period of low commodity prices that ended in 2008, that period took its toll on the Graf farm as well. However, von Laer is optimistic that prices will remain profitable well into the future.“I hope so,” he says. “Ten years ago, it wasn’t good. Wheat was selling for 120 euros a tonne (C$180).”
Now his focus is on efficient management to maintain high production levels. “Today, production costs are at 150 euros (C$225) per tonne for wheat,” he adds.
Variable-rate seeding and fertilizer application are a key part of that strategy. And unlike North Ameri- can growers who often look for a one-pass seeding solution, seeding and fertilizing are done in separate operations. Broadcast spreaders are the method of choice for applying fertilizer. And the farm uses NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) technology to vary application rates during multiple passes over fields throughout the growing season. That creates more uniform stands and saves the farm about 15 euros per hectare in nitrogen costs.
Relatively intensive tillage is still the production method of choice. But the farm, like many others, has moved away from using plows. “Produktion hier ist pfluglos,” von Laer says in German. Pfluglos, roughly translated, means “without the plow.”
To help mitigate problems of soil erosion in 2001, the German government offered farmers a 100-euros- per-hectare subsidy for five years if they stopped plowing and looked to other, better tillage implements. “There is a lot of straw that has to be incorporated into the fields,” he says through the interpreter. So tillage is viewed as a necessary process.
But the cost benefits of pfluglos have been substantial. The high fuel usage and wear and tear on equipment when plowing added up. And von Laer likes the results he’s seen since parking the plows and using newer tillage implements that leave the soil in better, more stable condition.
As we walk a few steps into a young stand of wheat, he digs up a clump of dirt with a spade and holds up a handful of well-structured, moist soil. The smile on his face says it all.