Tarmstedt and North Germany

Farmers Journal, July 1996


One of the highlights of my recent visit to Germany was a trip to Tarmstedt and surrounding villages in north Germany. Tarmstedt is predominantly rural and is situated about 25 kilometres to the east of the city of Bremen. The reason for my trip was to visit Willi Walter Dei and Wilhelm Evert, both of whom were on the German delegation that visited Cashel for the EC meeting of Rural Communes in June 1995. 

Tarmstedt is the chief village in a group of 17 rural villages. It is mainly a farming area and, in typical German style, all the farmhouses are concentrated in the village as opposed to the single habitations one gets in Ireland. The landscape and village scapes are well ordered, showing the results of generations of care and attention. For instance the roads are perfect. All the villages are linked by bicycle lanes. The street signposts are clear and easy to read. Every place is perfectly clean. I saw one woman sweeping up the street outside her farmhouse. It may come as a surprise to listeners to learn that a German householder is responsible for the footpath in the front of his/her house, to keep it clean or, in the event of frost and snow, to keep it clear. 

I stayed with Willi Dei for two nights. He was the translator for the group in Cashel and he is fluent in English and French. He is a teacher in the secondary school in Tarmstedt, which is the educational centre for the 17 villages. All the children to primary and secondary school are bussed to Tarmstedt. Some people have regrets about this development and believe the loss of the village school was a retrograde step. With the loss of the school some of the other infra-structure in the villages will disappear.

In Hepstedt, the village of Wilhelm Evert, these fears are real. While I was there there was a story in the local paper about the fate of the village inn. This famous Gasthaus, which was in the same family for ninety years is today without an owner. The couple who owned it and the son who succeeded all died within a year. The place was put up for sale but as of now there are no bidders. There are fears that nobody is interested because the future of the village would not justify the purchase. The strange thing is that the inn was doing a good trade in the past. Wilhelm Evert, who has been living in the village since 1956, coming originally from the east of the country and who taught with his wife in the local school until he retired, is somewhat pessimistic about the future of the place. 

Some of you are familiar with the name of Hepstedt because it is with this area that Cashel Community School have established an exchange. The school, as I said above is actually located in Tarmstedt, but it serves the community of Hepstedt. The local papers this weekend carry a report by Sean Hill about the exchange.

Farming under Threat 

I suppose the best way of grasping how things are going is to take a look at farming, the main occupation in the area. Wilhelm took me along to visit Helmut Hartmann, one of the local farmers, who farms 30 hectares and leases another 20. He pays between 320 and 400DM per hectare, approximately £140-£174 per hectare for the leased land. On the basis of 2.47 acres to a hectare this works out at £56-£70 per acre, rather cheap by Irish standards. 

However, there is a points rating for land in Germany, which must be somewhat equivalent to the system applied by Griffeth, when he worked out the valuation of land in Ireland in the last century. Under the German system the best land is rated at 100 points and is to be found in middle Germany, particularly around Hanover, where there is a good loemy soil. I am not too sure of all the criteria for deciding on the points rating of land. The land Helmut owns and leases rates between 25-40 on the German scale. Much of the land in the area was original cutaway bog and has been rehabilitated over a long time. If his land were the good loemy kind around Hanover he would pay double the price to lease it. And there would be a similar discrepancy if he went to sell. In that event his land would sell at 10,000 DM for pasture land - about £1,760 per acre - and 12,000 DM for arable land - about £2,112 per acre. In contrast to buy a hectare in Hannover would cost one 50,000 DM, about £8,800 per acre. 

Helmut milks twenty cows and carries about 50 young stock. His cows average 6,500 litres per year, about 1450 gallons. He has a quota of 80,000 litres, about 18,000 gallons, per year. His yield would put him well over quota, unless there is an extra quota with the leased land. He didn't indicate any difficulty with the quota and reckoned that quotas were not being filled in Germany since many of the producers in the former East Germany were failing to make quota. And, he added, quotas can be sold for 1.20 DM per litre, about £2.40 per gallon. Milk prices are 55 phennings per litre plus a 5 phenning subsidy from the government, which, in total, works out at approximately £1.17 a gallon, plus bonuses for butter fat etc. 

In order to get that yield Helmut feeds his cows 7-8 kilos of of meal per day all the year round. This works out at approximately 820DM , about £360, per cow per year. The cows are housed all the year round and are also fed on silage made from grass or maize. Helmut grows 5 hectares of maize, 15 hectares of barley, has 1 hectare of forest and the rest is grass. 

I asked him about the future of farming. He is a man in his seventies and has recently has a heart operation. As we drank beer at his livingroom table I noticed his was of the non-alchoholic variety. Forty years ago there were 40-45 farmers in his village. That number is now reduced to 20 and, he reckons. it will be down to 5 by the year 2000. He believes the minimum acreage a man will need to make a living will be 150 hectares, nearly 400 acres. Young people don't want to work the land anymore. They want a five day week and only eight hours work each day and the weekends free Already, many of the young farmers sons in the village have deserted the land for the big Mercedes factory in Bremen. 

Lack of Wives

And, there is another problem, women. German women do not want to marry farmers. Hermann has a 48 year old son working the land and he is unmarried. Another son, Christian, is living in Tasmania and married to an Australian. And, by the way they met in Ireland!! He and his wife were on holidays while I was on my visit and in response to my question could he see himself returning to farm in Hepstedt, he was very definite to the negative: No way. An interesting point made by Christian was that there were too many restrictions on life in Germany. In contrast Tasmania was a dream place in which to live, with great freedom. His wife was of the opinion that the disinclination of German women to go into farming is a rejection of the traditional role of the German farmer's wife which can be summed up in the three words: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche, children, church, kitchen. German women don't want this role any longer. I don't know if Irish women think the same way about marrying farmers but if they don't perhaps there might be scope here for the Knock Marriage Bureau. Maybe they should set up an office in Hepstedt. 

At any rate from the perspective of Hermann Holsten the outlook is bleak. He foresees the disappearance of family farms and their replacement by ranches and factory farms. This may lead to more efficient farming with higher production levels bringing about a lesser need for subsidies. In fact the future prospect may be very similar to that obtaining in Tasmania, where there are no subsidies but where the size of the farm is such that profit margins per animal or per acre need be much smaller than on smaller spreads. But, the price to be paid will be the disappearance of a strong tradition of family farming in the area and a way of life that stretches back into centuries of time.