Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Day 18 - Wednesday, October 12

We began this morning with a tour of the Hessischer Landtag, the Hessen capitol building.  It was a fantastic tour in a building mixed with old architecture and new.  My words can't do justice to describe the pictures below.
The parliament meets in a round chamber with the "left wing" parties sitting on the left, to the more "right wing" parties on the right.  It is also a porportional parliament, so the largest party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has a coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP).  Their system is quite facinating, but its somewhat of a graduate-college level math problem to understand.  We met with Klaus Dietz a member of the parliament and someone who is on their ag committee.  He grew up on a very small diary farms 30 kilometers away.  In Hessen there are many specialized farms; 60% of the agricultural income from is from dairy production followed by pigs, wheat and oilseeds.  There are five regions in Hessen that specialize in grain farming, wines, wheat in the northern fertile soils, wood forests to the south, grasslands, dairy farms and some arable land with corn. 
Mr. Dietz felt that farmers are more conservative in nature and vote for the CDU about 80% of the time because the CDU believes in personal responsibility and the entrepreneurial spirit.  There are 118 members in parliament, five are farmers.
We talked extensively about agriculture and focused on a couple of the topics of the day: energy and the environment.  He noted that like the consumer who thinks chocolate milk comes from a brown cow, most consumers think electricity just comes from the wall and at the peak of concern with Fukushima, Germany was nearing their elections.  That is why the state parliament moved so quickly to ban nuclear energy. This is forcing energy production from biogas, solar and wind, which have guaranteed prices set by the government. Agriculture is key, especially looking toward the future of wood based biomass from fast growing poplar trees and forest trimmings.  He noted that Germany will also need more wind energy; the last time wind energy was pushed there were guaranteed investment loans and price support from the government, today there are only price guarantees, but no additional investment from government.  He said that this is being paid by consumers and their prices are rising as well as industrial costs for manufacturing.
We also talked about animal welfare and the challenges of fighting special interests groups who are trying to change agriculture back to 1960's style production.  He noted that the EU announced a cage ban for hens in 2001 that would phase out cages by 2008; Germany banned cages immdeiately and is enforcing the law, however the EU ban is not in force yet in other countries and in many circumstances cages are moving from Germany to other EU countries, which is creating an unlevel playing field.
Finally we talked about the state challenges of farm subsidies; payments are split 50% EU, 30% federal and 20% state. The state is in charge of the control system for farmers to receive payments.  Last year there were 226 million Euro in direct EU payments to Hessen farmers. He said that the payments fit into two boxes direct patients and environmental subsidies; more and more efforts are being pushed toward the environmental areas.  He said his concern is that their country has had 66 years without war, the older generation know it but the young don't appreciate where we've come from.  We need agriculture to have sustainable food production, to suceed as a country they must find solutions at the table and not on the battlefield.
After lunch we drove to the Abbey Eberbach, a former monastery known for its impressive Romanesqueand early Gothic buildings and is considered one of the most significant architectural heritage sites in Hesse, Germany. Additionally, the abbey is known for its outstanding wine production that gave the monks the ability to build other monasteries across Europe.  We toured the buildings and had a wine tasting of local Rieslings.
Then we traveled to a horse boarding facility that was very unique.  The family farms about 250 total hectacres, but has a boarding facility that encompases 19 of those hectacres with barns, riding arenas and horse pastures.  They board about 30 horses but do not have individual stalls, they work on a group system where the horses run together in large paddocks that are rotationally grazed.  Additionally, each horse is microchipped for animal identification.  They use this ID to trigger and automatic grain system that feeds each horse a precise daily ration.  The horse facility is engineered to optimize the exercise for the horses requiring them to visit the feeder in one area, stable in another, pasture in another and water in yet another area.  We got into some conversations with some of the boarders at the stable.  They said they selected this stable because it allowed their horses to get exercise whether they could ride them or not.  We ended the day with a light meal with the family that gave us some time to tell about our farms and ranches in the U.S.

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