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The two sides of Denmark

They share so much, but under it all the Peterson and Dall farms have made some very different choices

Two farmers; two philosophies. Jorgen Popp Peterson and Mogens Dall are hog farmers in southern Denmark. Both are 55 years old. Each has adult children, both wives work off-farm, and each man is also heavily involved in politics, and on agricultural councils as well.

But amid the similarities, there is this great difference. One farms to survive, the other to reach the top.

Kidingvey road in Aabenraa leads through green rolling hills and past thriving canola fields and white-trimmed brick farm houses.

Then, at Nr. 42, Piggy, a fat concrete sculpture of a hog, greets visitors to the neat gravel lane that leads past shady trees and a meticulous lawn.

The home and farm of Mogens and Bente Dall is a place where TV crews and journalists are welcome. Always heavily involved in agriculture boards and politics, Mogens is campaigning for a seat in the upcoming national elections in 2019.

Mogens and Bente Dall's home on southern Denmark. photo: Marianne Stamm

He runs a 10,000-feeder-pig operation and crops 256 hectares of land 30 kms northeast of the Danish border with Germany. It’s a large farm for Denmark, where the average farm is 70 ha. But that’s all changing, Mogens says.

“The general direction is that if you don’t operate 800 to 1,000 hectares you will be small fry. That will take a few years yet, but it’s coming to Denmark too.”

“Kloge Hans” is what Bente calls him, as in “Clever Hans,” after a Danish fairy tale. Dall spent his first two years in an orphanage before being adopted by a farm couple for whom he became their dream child. It’s a story Dall loves to tell in all the details; his father calls it a real fairy tale.

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Maybe it’s that fairy tale background which helped form him into a beaming healthy ego that thrives on risk.

The farm Mogens and Bente took over from his father in l990 was small — 45 hectares and a hog barn for 1,300 feeder pigs.

“You’ll soon be working out and this farm will be your hobby,” Mogens was told. To which he retorted, “I’d give my right arm for this farm. You can be sure I’ll work hard and I’m not the most stupid. Let’s give this a chance.”

As an only child he was able to acquire the farm for a family price, later using it as leverage to invest in more land as it became available (he would go on to purchase five smaller and one larger farm around him) and in buildings and technology for the hog business. The strategy worked.

“We risked a lot, financially, several times. Looking back we can conclude that with luck and a bit of hard work it paid off. We wouldn’t know that though until after the decisions were made. We once invested one and a half million Canadian dollars in three new hog barns. We had hardly stocked them with the first wieners when pig prices rose because of BSE elsewhere.” (Denmark stayed BSE free.)

In 2001 Dall received a decisive call from a landlord who wished to retire. The roots of that large holding of 160 hectares reach back to 1725 to a baron who worked the land using serfs. “I think it’s a number too big for you,” the landlord said. “But if you want to try, we’re open to discussions.”

Major expansion is a risky strategy in Denmark, but the Dalls see it is their best option. photo: Marianne Stamm

Dall did want to try. To not do so would jeopardize his hog business, as he needed the land base for his manure. Land prices had risen considerably since his first purchase of 64,000 Danish krone per hectare (C$12,950) to now 140,000 krone per hectare (C$28,315). Looking back, though, it was still a good price. Today it would sell for 180-200,000 kroner (C$36,405 to 40,450). “We’ll be able to cash in nicely one day.” Plus, Dall’s land now provides all his required hog feed except for soybeans.

His fall-seeded crops look healthy, better than some others around him. Dall does most of the field work including harvest with the help of a young employee. The seeding is hired out. He doesn’t consider himself above doing the rock picking himself with a fork, his 75-year-old employee on the tractor.

Mornings find him in the hog barns from six to nine. Then it’s off to the office. Dall is chairman of LandboSyd, an agriculture business consulting firm he helped found 10 years ago. Today, LandboSyd has 140 employees and serves 2,000 clients. “You have to make a date on the calendar for family time or work will consume you,” Bente warns.

Though Dall has no successor in sight, he’s convinced of the importance of continued investment in the farm. “I’m too old now to build a new barn. My strategy, though, has always been to build a viable farm entity to a size which provides a successor or purchaser with good opportunities.”

Dall believes the days of the small family farm are disappearing, unless it produces organically.

“What is too small is too small.” A decade ago the government changed land ownership laws to allow non-farmers to purchase agriculture land, driving prices up. Land is seen as a secure investment, providing two to three percent interest. Dall doesn’t see this as all bad, saying that for farmers who want to stay in the business, not much may change in their daily life. The farmer may become more of a manager or operator, even maintaining a share in the farm. Small farmers can sell for a better price, providing them a better retirement.

“Money is very tolerant,” Dall says. “The investor has a major interest in putting in the money if investments are needed.”

On the other side

On the other side of the country, not far from the North Sea, is the Petersen farm. Popp, as he is called to distinguish him from the many other Petersens in the area, has 600 breeding sows and owns 85 hectares. The light sandy land is rented out. “It doesn’t make financial sense to work the land myself,” he says, adding, “Land ownership is not highly valued here.” Instead, he concentrates on doing an excellent job with the sows and piglets.

Petersen’s father was only 47 years old when he passed away. A musician, his father eventually rented out the third-generation farm. His mother ran a store in the village. The same year his father passed away, the renter declared bankruptcy. For the next four years Petersen took over the cropping of the land while finishing agriculture school. In l987 he and his wife came back to the farm.

Despite the view in Canada that EU farmers are so subsidized, they don’t need to react to market pressures, Popp Petersen says flexibility is now his top strategy. “I don’t have a five-year plan.” photo: Marianne Stamm

What Petersen values most in farming is the freedom to be an entrepreneur, and to plan his days and business to suit him. “We’ve always striven for flexibility,” says Petersen. “I don’t have a five-year plan.”

“The goal of some farmers, for instance, is to have 1,000 head of cattle. That’s not important to me.”

However, the farm must be able to adapt easily to new circumstances, whether it be politics, agriculture, or family. He and his wife began with 180 sows and cropped the land. For a time they farmed organically, then gave it up and turned their full attention to the breeder operation. For now that’s working well.

“We aim to avoid high debt,” Petersen says. “That entails the risk that things might not continue, not with the existing structure, but it provides flexibility.” When farmers invest big, he believes, they lose that flexibility, and he has seen many farmers go bankrupt, especially after the financial crisis in 2008.

And the trend continues.

Just recently a large corporate farm claimed bankruptcy. “It was a large operation; they did everything right,” claims Petersen. They’d invested heavily and the situation went against them. Petersen believes in the advice a financial speaker gave at a farm conference some years ago. “It’s not about being at the top and making the most money. It’s about farming in such a way, you can survive the lows.”

Plowing land near Petersen farm. photo: Marianne Stamm

It’s not just agriculture or politics that can jeopardize the farm. Personal catastrophes such as divorce or illness can make the farm very vulnerable. Although Petersen doesn’t invest heavily in land and buildings, he does aim for the top in breeding and growth performance. “Our operation is very intensive, with two employees. Every day brings something new, every day we have to improve. This means investing in technology to be more efficient and better.”

How does a small country like Denmark maintain such a thriving agriculture business? “We have to be better than the others, work more efficiently, streamline operations” is Petersen’s conclusion.

Denmark is a high-cost social state within the European Union. (Bente Dall points out that their 23-year-old son goes to university free of charge, even receiving a monthly cheque for living expenses.) Wages, too, are higher. Environmental regulations are tight.

“If challenges and demands are tougher, we work harder,” Petersen says. That’s one reason, he insists, that Denmark’s pork breeding sector is so successful. Another is the superior veterinary situation. Being surrounded by ocean, with only a 70-km border to Germany, helps to keep disease to a minimum. “When BSE broke out in the U.K. and Holland, we were clean and could keep our markets. We’ve always been able to export to China and the U.S.A.”

The third reason, Petersen believes, is the spirit of co-operation among the Danish farmers. Almost all the large agriculture service and production companies are producer owned.

“There are so many unknowns in farming,” he concludes. “What we do is akin to a chess game. 30 years ago, growing organically was a new concept; today it is becoming mainstream. The whole discussion about the consumption of meat and climate change isn’t going away. Danish agriculture relies heavily on exports of meat and live breeding stock. Turnarounds in that sector could hit us hard.”

The most important place on the Petersen farm is the kitchen table. Here problems and joys are discussed and all the major decisions made. His wife isn’t otherwise involved in the farm.

“Being married to a farmer is different,” Petersen believes. “You are always a part of the whole.”

Popp is a town councillor in nearby Tonder. He’s chairman of an agricultural co-operative and on the board of a private German school, among other things. Everything he is otherwise involved in depends on things going well at home. “Politics can change tomorrow. Our farm is our pillar.”

Early mornings find him, like Dall, in the barn. He still castrates all the piglets himself and is present at weaning. The farm has two employees, one of them a woman whose job is to take care of the piglets. These are raised to 30 kilos weight.

Every two weeks, 650 to 700 weaner pigs are sold to a feeder barn about an hour away. All Petersen’s hog feed is purchased. He has contracts with the surrounding farms for the manure.

Inside Popp Petersen's farrowing barn. photo: Marianne Stamm

Petersen leads to his backyard, makes a sweeping gesture over the wide blue sky, the dark soil of the worked grain field, the meadow lined by spruce trees. “This is what I look forward to coming home to every time I’ve been away, all this space.”

The farm is above all his family home. Popp’s daughters have all pursued careers outside of the farm. That has an advantage. “When the younger generation takes over, the older generation should move out,” he says. “We ourselves have made our investments in such a way so that we can scroll down our production and continue to live here.”

Petersen’s goal is to live an active involved life. Farmers are entrepreneurs, he says, always coming up with new ideas. After a poor crop year they get out and seed again. His neighbour farmed organically until he died at 87, and always had a project going on the side. “He’s my role model,” Petersen says.

Most important to Petersen is that his family is healthy and happy. Their oldest daughter and her family just moved down the road. “We didn’t influence that decision but are super happy to have them so close.”

For Dall too, in the end it’s about family. “Having children changes your focus,” he says.

“I always say that if our children are healthy and happy, if Bente and I have a good relationship, and the automatic feeding system is working, then my world is in order!”

Danish agriculture at a glance

  • Total hectares: 4.3 million
  • Total under cultivation: 60 per cent compared to Canada’s 4.3 per cent
  • Population: 7 million, agriculture production feeds three times that population
  • Average farm size: 70 hectares, 20 per cent are more than 100 hectares
  • Dominating crops: cereals, 75 per cent of which are for animal feed
  • Main exports: meat, fur, and dairy products
  • Contribution to GDP: 25 per cent as compared to Canada at 0.38 per cent
  • Co-operative turnover contributes close to 10 per cent of GDP
  • Annual exports from the food and agriculture industry: excess of 30.7 billion dollars
  • Pork statistics from 2017:
    – Total pigs: 31,662 million
    – Total slaughtered: 16,931 million
    – Live pigs exported: 14,172 million

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