By Renee Ciulla
As I wrote in my first post for Ethicurean, I’m a graduate student learning about Sustainable Agriculture in Europe who recently spent a semester at the University of Kassel in Germany. Its international organic agriculture program is located in the quaint village of Witzenhausen, surrounded by rolling fields of lush farmland and tidy bike paths and dotted with perfect villages separated by sustainably managed “community forests.”
I fell in love with the dense, sourdough rye breads, plethora of organic foods, and the high level of environmental concern and responsibility held by most of the people. For example, almost all food products sold there come in glass jars that are strictly recycled. My Food Quality course visited a facility that sanitized German glass jars and bottles, where we were told that they are able to reuse them safely about 26 times before needing to be crushed. I highly prefer this system over the vast sea of plastic containers in most American supermarkets.
More enjoyable than watching jars being sterilized was visiting the local farms by bicycle in the weeks following the end of the semester. Although some things like plant diseases, food safety guidelines, and European organic regulations are best learned from text in the classroom, there is definitely a time and place for real-world learning, especially when it comes to food systems.
I became interested in the locally available foods I had been eating: “Why does this yogurt taste so amazingly thick and fresh, like nothing I've ever had from a Stonyfield container? Who produced this raw honey that filled my mouth with a rich taste of the cherries growing on the nearby hills?” I was determined to meet farmers and learn about their efforts to build and support a more localized food system.
In an effort to keep this story a reasonable length for strained Internet-reader-eyes, I won’t delve into details about all the discoveries I made, such as the Curic family that keeps bees scattered throughout German forests and fields for their sweet, earthy-flavored honeys, or the well-known Jausen Station, a family-run restaurant that feeds more than 44,000 visitors a year almost entirely from their small farm of chickens, goats, pigs, grains, vegetable gardens, bakery, and sausage and cheese production facilities. With a lot of determination, map reading and pedal power I was able to learn a phenomenal amount about who was behind some of the delicious foods that remain a secret to people outside the valley.
Thinking outside the big-box stores
Some of my first visits included three organic food delivery businesses, a service that is becoming increasingly popular in Germany. One of my favorites, Gruener Bote (Green Box), is owned by Wolfgang Ostrhues. The foods are all organic and they strive to source local whenever possible, including breads, cheese, meats, eggs and summer vegetables. They started this year-round business 25 years ago and now have 20 employees, three bright green delivery vans, and 600 to 700 customers, depending on the season. The drivers often spend 10-12 hours a day delivering to elderly citizens and young families. The customers choose exactly what they want in their “green box” each week and can use the efficient online service to make their selections. These choices are seen on computer screens near the food items so the employees can efficiently pack the boxes before delivery.
Ostrhues confirmed that there is more and more interest in his services every year and that there are over 500 similar businesses in Germany, some of which cater to 3,000-plus clients. One of the biggest problems Ostrhues faces is the stiff competition from big-box grocery stores with lower organic prices. He is, however, able to advertise as supporting local farmers, and more Germans understand why it is important to do so instead of purchasing organic apples flown from New Zealand, for example. Ostrhues does not pursue any government funding — although there would be some available for his organic vegetable farm — because he prefers to, “work for the garden and not the government.” He said the amount of paperwork for such funding is overwhelming and as it is, he spends too much time stuck behind a computer.
I really enjoyed visiting the Ostrhues’ farm because of his commitment to quality and locally produced items. The family’s own fields grow beautiful leeks, lettuce, Swiss chard, beans, and several herbs as well as two greenhouses producing cucumbers and tomatoes.
The Middleman: sales outlet and educator
Local farms may be producing an abundance of delicious and creative items for sale, but to thrive they need a marketplace. One business reaching out to local producers is Absatzgenossenschaft Unterrieden (AGU) near the village of Witzenhausen. AGU sells only locally grown and processed products such as wine, liquor, juices, pasta, honey, cheese, sausages, and soap. The owner, Sylvia Mueller, commented that demand for local products is on the rise; I was surprised to see the shop was open from 9am-6pm every day of the week. Although there are fewer and fewer young farmers in the valley, Mueller hopes that if a outlet exists to support locally made items, growing and selling locally will become more feasible for farming youth who want to stay in the area. She told me about Kirshenbluten, which is the name for the special local currency of the village of Witzenahusen: it was launched as an incentive to hold people in the area and shop at local, family-owned stores.
One of the most inspiring farms I have ever visited in my life was just a 30-minute bike ride from the campus of Witzenhausen. Holger and Michaele Schenke deserve every medal out there for hands-on organic farm-based education. Situated on a small knoll of lush fields overlooking a nearby castle and the Werra river, the Schul Bauernhof Hutzelberg (Teaching Farm) in the village of Oberrieden is truly a site of beauty. The dynamic husband and wife team both have agricultural diplomas from Witzenhausen and started this farm school 10 years ago. Rather than provide food for the local community, their intention is to offer comprehensive lessons about sustainable living to visitors who stay for an entire week.
Just a short walk from their home is the attractive building where groups of school children or families on holiday sleep and prepare meals from the farm’s bounty while gazing across the Werra River to a typical German scene; a dignified castle proudly perched on a knoll. Each day of the week is devoted to learning a new topic (making cheese from the cows’ milk; harvesting produce from the garden; grinding grains grown on the farm to make bread; feeding the rabbits, pigs, sheep and geese; shearing the sheep; making honey and learning about processing meat). Traditional tool making is also taught, as well as basic organic farming principles.
The students typically come with their teachers and are the chefs for the week. Although the Schenkes must find funding every year on their own, they are inspired by the fact that more and more interns contact them to volunteer on the farm, living there for free and teaching part-time while learning a wealth of knowledge about how to sustain one’s family from the land. The owners did express concern about being able to keep their prices low enough to be affordable to schools and to attract German tourists that want to experience an educational holiday. (I think Americans would have a blast at this place and wonder if they would consider hosting international visitors.)
Smart policy for rural businesses
Funding for organic agriculture-focused projects is always at the forefront of concerns for independent farmers and educators such as the Schenkes, Ostrhues, and Mueller. One helpful solution is coming from the government — often an unlikely place of support. The EU’s Rural Development Plan (2007-2013) is aimed at assisting projects that help to maintain the vitality of declining rural communities through farming, value-added products, or other means. While living in Witzenhausen, I knew about a small business called Troki, owned by Robert Witlake, that dries local fruits (cherries, apples, apricots) and vegetables. Witlake was able to receive 30% of the purchasing money for his business from this EU program because Witzenhausen is classified as an “endangered” village. he also supports local wheat growers to make pasta as well as processing the local fruit into jams. Several growers have now come to depend on his business as a way to keep their farm running and provide a viable income for their family. Businesses such as Troki have the chance to indirectly support the beauty of the landscape, local farming knowledge, biodiversity and the strong sense of a safe and happy community that is such a wonderful part of the Werra River valley.
The link between rural development plans and local food production is an important one, and as I traveled around Europe last year, always drooling over the impeccable landscapes and deeply-ingrained food traditions, I began to appreciate the importance of how policy is intricately linked to food. While I am an enormous fan of Europe, I have become increasingly proud of small steps being taken closer to home. The purpose of this entry is not to make readers envious of Europeans but instead to become aware of new opportunities now in the United States.
Kathleen Merrigan, the current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, has recently sent out a memo, “Harnessing USDA rural development programs to support local and regional food systems,” which highlights existing funding opportunities for projects and initiatives such as the exciting ones I discovered in Germany. (See this Grist article for analysis and a link to a PDF of the memo.) The three programs outlined include the Community Facilities Program, The Business Industry Guarantee Loan Program, and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program. I haven’t met anyone that has taken advantage of these funding opportunities, but if any readers have, please post a comment!