French fries crisis in Germany

The drought in Germany, full potato stores and the appreciation of farmers in corona times: On these topics Tagesspiegel-Author Heike Jahberg has conducted an interview with Farmers’ President Joachim Rukwied.

Mr Rukwied, it has been very dry for weeks, now it’s raining again. How much rain do the farmers need so that their crops won’t dry up again?

We urgently need a longer lasting warm rain, at least 20 to 30 litres per square metre, spread over a few days. The surface of the soil, whether it is arable or grassland, has dried up. We had far too little rainfall in the past weeks, and then there was the sharp east wind. The topsoil was bone dry.

Are you expecting another drought summer like 2018?

It is not possible to say at this point. If we get a wet May, it will help the grain, but the weather in the summer months is crucial for the yields of maize and beet. Unfortunately, however, we already have irreparable damage on some sites.

Does that concern Brandenburg in particular?

Large parts of eastern Germany have a problem. Sandy or clayey soils can store moisture poorly and the damage is done already. Part of the yield from rape has already been lost, even if it rains accordingly now. For the crops that are harvested in autumn, i.e. maize, sugar beets, vegetables and fruit, everything is still open.

In 2018 the state saved the farmers with tax money of 340 million euros. What can farmers do to protect themselves and their harvests from the consequences of climate change?

Our lives would be easier if we had more room for manoeuvre when it comes to taxes. We need a tax-free risk equalisation reserve so that we can build up reserves in better years and release them in difficult years to stabilise liquidity. Unfortunately, the German government has not yet implemented this requirement. What would also help us would be new breeding techniques like Crispr/Cas. This would allow us to develop new heat-insulating varieties in a much shorter time. What many farmers are already doing themselves now is to do without intensive soil cultivation. They have switched to mulch and direct sowing methods to save water.

Besides climate change, now we are facing the Covid-19 challenge. Canteens and restaurants are closed, people are cooking at home. What does this mean for the demand for food?

It has changed completely. This not only affects canteens and restaurants, but also exports. Dairy farmers, who have done business with Italy or China, for example, are particularly affected. In Germany, festivals are cancelled, which is a particular problem for wine growers and breweries. There are no spring festivals, folk festivals, weddings or family celebrations at the moment.

But people are buying more.

That’s why there are winners and losers in one and the same industry, for example in milk. Dairies, which have mainly done business with the catering trade and export, are now facing huge problems. On the other hand, dairies whose main focus has been on food retailing can hardly keep up with deliveries. One area, however, is in great difficulty. That is the potato market.

Why is that?

The warehouses are full of potatoes that should actually be processed into French fries. But this is not happening, because the catering trade is currently buying almost no fries. The farmers are sitting on a mountain of at least 350,000 tons. We urgently need support measures here in the form of liquidity loans from the Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank (Germany’s development agency for agribusiness and rural areas), which should be provided with a repayment subsidy from federal funds. In the case of milk and beef and sheep meat, it has already been decided at EU level to promote private storage. That is good. It will enable us to take pressure off the market.

Last year, thousands of farmers demonstrated for more appreciation for their work. Are you receiving this recognition during the corona crisis?

The Corona crisis has led to increased appreciation for a functioning, local, agriculture that produces high-quality, regional and safe food. Many people now see how important our work is. I would hope that this appreciation will continue after the Corona crisis.

Joachim Rukwied (58) is a farmer in Eberstadt near Heilbronn. On his parents’ farm he cultivates grain, sugar beets, rape, field vegetables, and he also has vineyards. Since June 2012 Rukwied is president of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV). Even though there are now other associations such as “Land schafft Verbindung” or the “Freie Bauern”, the association is by far the most important political mouthpiece for farmers. Around 90 percent of the 300,000 agricultural enterprises in Germany are members of the DBV.

This article was published on tagesspiegel.de