My trip to Rügen shows what farmers everywhere have in common, but there are still lessons we English can take from others.
Farming life What we can learn from the Germans
Farming life What we can learn from the Germans

I am writing this column on a German train, as I travel from Rügen, an island in the northeast of Germany, to London via Berlin. I’m returning home from the annual reunion of the Agricultural Business Management course I attended in 2017. Each year the whole cohort visits the farm of one of the course members—this year we were the guests of the von Wersebe family—to observe each other’s work, tour local businesses and encourage or console each other amidst good food, laughter and the occasional glass of the good stuff. Most course members are from the UK, with two from Germany and one from Australia.

Rügen is one of Germany’s holiday islands, but perhaps because it is not served by an airport, we seemed to be the only “Brits abroad”; how pleasant! We toured an immaculate 600-cow dairy farm, plus a farm-based business based on a private island, which also runs restaurants and shops on other beautiful tourist islands close by. We also went to a brewery, “natürlich”.

My ulterior motive on the trip was to investigate the differences between English farmers and those of Rügen, which is part of the former East Germany. In the GDR, from 1949 to 1990, farms over 100 hectares were taken over by the government and turned into state-run collectives. Following reunification in the 1990s, private owners were sometimes able to return, but in cases where previous owners had fled or in more sinister cases disappeared, new owners were sought. A modern farming scene emerged. The new farms were more efficient than their predecessors and operated under strong environmental regulations. They also benefitted from government support for nature-based initiatives. This was a significant transformation, building on the GDR-provided infrastructure of concrete roads and quite enormous barns. My investigation led to two key findings.

Firstly, in Rügen, cooperation between farmers is notably common. I don’t know where this collaborative attitude comes from—perhaps it was fostered during the GDR era, developed as a response to the rapid changes of the 1990s, or is an innate characteristic of the German culture. But for whatever reason, farmers in Rügen were working together in ways you rarely witness in the UK.

Two neighbours we met had exchanged land, to the benefit both of parties. And though private property rights are upheld, the right of passage extends across the whole island.

In one stunning example of collaboration, 100 households and businesses formed a cooperative to secure and distribute low-cost, renewable energy among members. The project is driven by one man—a sheep farmer who dedicates up to 20 hours per week to do it. The energy comes from a small number of wind turbines (Germany has set a target of covering 2 per cent of its land area with turbines by 2032), and roof-top solar panels, which the project sponsors, on local hotels and private houses.

Secondly, I was struck by how very English the Germans of this region are. Or perhaps I should say—given that it was the invading Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who gave us our modern “Anglo-Saxon” name—just how very German we, the English, are. Throughout the weekend we each shared updates on our farms and families, and found we’d faced similar challenges, triumphs and heartaches, whatever our native tongue. We felt an affinity with our hosts and shared their outlook—and the same self-deprecating sense of humour. Even the common style of gardening in Rügen is called the “English garden”.

I concede that farmers I meet around the globe are astonishingly similar, and that island dwellers too have a commonality. But with the farmers of Rügen, I felt a bond even stronger than that of friendship. I felt kinship. We felt like family.

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