ATLANTA, Ill. — The direct farm-to-consumer movement continues to grow across the United States, but it’s been the norm in another part of the world where rural communities are thriving as a result.
The German American Chambers of Commerce’s Transatlantic Agricultural Dialogue, an exchange program for German and American farmers, in collaboration with the Illinois Farm Bureau, recently hosted a group of Illinois and other Midwest farmers on a tour of farming communities in Bavaria, Germany, focusing on direct marketing.
Dave Bishop and his daughter-in-law, Katie Bishop, of PrairiErth Farm, Atlanta, were among the 19 farmers and ag industry representatives on the tour.
PrairiErth Farm is a 350-acre U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic family farm that produces a diverse selection of vegetables, garden plants, fruits, cows, heritage breed pigs, chickens for eggs and grains.
During tour stops in various communities and farms along the way, Bishop noticed a trend.
“After a few days, you began to realize there are no rundown small towns there. There are a lot of farms. The average size farm is 75 to 100 acres. So, you ask, does it support a family? Yes,” he said.
Germany’s 137,847 square miles is slightly smaller than Montana and has nearly 6,000 food processing plants across the nation. Illinois has 2,640, most of which are located in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Ninety-five percent of the food processing companies have fewer than 250 employees, and the industry generates $190 billion annually, accounting for 5.4% of Germany’s gross domestic product. Illinois ranks first in the United States with $180 billion in processed food sales.
“That means that food is processed in every small town, big city, whatever, all across the country. It’s all local. We toured a number of these processing plants. They’re very high tech. Germany is about as close to the United States as possible. It has similar culture, similar technology. It’s a very similar country,” Bishop said.
“The small towns are thriving, and there are lots and lots of them. There aren’t boarded up small towns and farms that are struggling. And the farms are beautiful, well-kept. They look wonderful. This is people who have farmed with the same equipment, the same technology, the same mentality that we farm. It’s just how they use it.”
Farm, Town Relationships
There also were examples of farms and villages that blend together. The tour included a stop at a town with a population of 3,000 that has a 120-cow dairy and hog operation in its center.
“You could throw a rock from the hog lot to the neighbor’s backyard. Nobody seemed to have a problem with that. The farmer also had some land just on the outskirts of town where he raised his forages, and his crops are brought them back into the middle of town to feed his cows,” Bishop said.
Germany has the largest dairy cattle herd and the second largest cattle population in the European Union.
“I was surprised to learn that in Germany most milk cows are Simmental. That’s a beef breed here, but there they call them dual purpose, they milk them for a while and then turn them into beef. You see that all over Bavaria,” Bishop said.
“We talked to a young farmer who was just getting started and her thing was her family was milking cows and they had an on-farm vending machine and selling raw milk. Here you would think that you’re poisoning people when you suggest raw milk, but there it’s very common.”
The direct marketing concept in Bavaria is primarily from farm to small shops.
“You don’t see big grocery stores like we have here. You see a lot of small shops. Having said that, in Munich, which has a population of nearly 1.5 million people, you don’t see any business at all anywhere near the size of a Walmart. They’re all small shops, hundreds and hundreds of small shops. The biggest business we saw was a lumberyard, and it wasn’t even one-tenth the size of a Walmart,” Bishop said.
“It’s the same way in the country with all small stores. There are a lot of on-farm stores, and in town, there would probably be a small grocery store. But a lot of people shop at the on-farm stores because there are so many of them, and they’re relatively close by.
“That concept of preserving the wealth you generate on the land and keeping it circulating — bubble up economics. You create prosperity on Main Street and let it bubble up instead of the other way around.”
He emphasized the widespread use of technology in Bavaria. One apple processing facility the group visited served several nearby small farms and used robotic technology.
“These people have figured out how to utilize technology and still maintain their own prosperity. You don’t have to sacrifice technology to create different systems. It’s not like going backwards and doing it the way grandpa did. They embrace the technology, but they use it differently,” he said.
Another tour stop featured a farm that grew 60 acres of hops that required about 12 fulltime employees that, in turn, provides a value-added service for customers.
“They produce about 10 different kinds of beer on the farm, and the farm also features a restaurant and beer garden that sells what they grow. The place was packed at dinnertime, and it was out in the middle of the country. They are also building a bed and breakfast. He had a ‘massive’ farm. It was 175 acres,” Bishop said with a chuckle.
“When I look what we’re doing with this local food movement, we are trying to get some little piece of what they’ve got.”
Diversification and keeping the value local can be the key to the success of farming operations and that also provides an economic boost to rural communities.
“You don’t have the big Cargill or wherever thing where your stuff all leaves and the profits go out of the community. There it’s grown in the community, it’s going to be processed nearby, it’s going to be sold nearby and all of that wealth continues to circulate in the community,” Bishop said.
“Diversity is a practical thing. In some parts of Germany they raise more row crops like we do and in some parts like Bavaria they have very little of that, but over the country as a whole most of what they grow they consume. They do it by using lots and lots of small processors that are spread out all across the country.
“Reflecting on this experience, I keep thinking about how important design is. We can design farming systems that are truly part of our community — literally in our community — no degrees of separation required.
“We can design buildings to raise animals in that don’t stink, are pleasant to be in, don’t create waste that’s a problem — don’t require ag gag laws to keep the public at bay — and still function highly efficiently. We can design systems that keep the wealth created on the land circulating in our communities, healthy food and healthy communities. Why don’t we?”