By Kelly Daynard, Farm & Food Care Ontario
I began working as a journalist almost 25 years ago and have specialized in writing about agriculture for most of that. Over the years, I have been constantly awed and inspired by the Canadian farmers I meet. Without exception they’re humble, imaginative, innovative, and passionate about what they do to feed their families, communities, and countries and the world. I love nothing more than to help share their stories.
For the last eight years, I’ve also been fortunate to be able to attend the annual congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ). The congress, held annually in a different country of the 40+ member guilds, brings together agricultural journalists and communications professionals to discuss common issues and learn about food and farming in the host country.
During that time I’ve met hog farmers from Slovakia; nursery growers from Finland; shrimp, crocodile, and sugar cane farmers from Australia; sheep farmers from New Zealand; beef farmers from Argentina, Belgium, and the USA; fruit, vegetable and grain farmers from all of those countries and more. While some of them may speak different languages than the farmers I work with in Canada, they share the same commitment and passion for their chosen careers.
And, while I find every one of their stories interesting, on occasion I’ll hear a story that touches me to the core.
The most recent congress, held in July of 2016, was in Bonn, Germany. After the main event ended, ten journalists from seven countries headed out for a deeper dive into farming in the north/east regions of the country. We toured chicken and hog farms, an agricultural research facility, large dairy processing plant, organic egg farm, grain terminal and much more.
At one stop we met Klaus Münchhoff. We were there to hear about his successful grain farm. He farms about 972 hectares of land, growing wheat, barley, peas, and rapeseed. He’s also recognized as a pioneer in German agriculture, introducing precision technology equipment into his business long before many realized its importance or value.
But it was the story he told after talking about his farming operation that had our group hanging on his every word.
He was born in 1953 in small town called Derenburg on land that had been in his family for more than 200 years (the current farmstead was built in 1871).
Klaus was only six-weeks old when his grandfather received word that his father and uncle were to be arrested the following night by the East German regime. It was a terrible time for farmers in East Germany, Klaus explained, and his grandfather had tried to protect the farm as much as he could. Years earlier, he’d divided the land into three parcels between himself and his sons so that the remaining farms were each smaller than 100 hectares, as larger farms were being taken away from the state at a much more rapid rate.
The Münchhoff farm as it looks today – restored after being run for decades by the East German regime
With the tightening of the borders in the early 1950s, rulings became even more severe. Klaus explained that taxes were being raised higher and higher and a farmer could be sent to prison (for example) if his cows didn’t give as much milk as the government thought they should.
His father and uncle escaped to West Germany as soon as they received that warning. Baby Klaus and his mother followed a few days later.
Left behind when their sons escaped, his grandparents and other relatives paid the consequences. They were forced out their family home; their livestock was confiscated by the state and the furniture that they couldn’t move on short notice was sold at highly discounted prices (20 cents for a cupboard as an example) with proceeds going to the state.
Thirty-six years passed. Klaus was raised in West Germany, attending law school and later opening up a property management business. But while he remembered nothing of his family’s home in East Germany, he always knew that was where he belonged.
His grandparents had eventually been able to join them in West Germany. As people became senior citizens, they were considered a burden to the state so they were encouraged to leave, Klaus explained, “They got rid of old people.”
German grain farmer Klaus Münchhoff shows a collage of photos depicting what his farm looked like after they reclaimed it when the Iron Curtain fell.
The wall between East and West Germany fell on November 9, 1989. Three days later, Klaus and his family set off for Derenburg, for a home that he only knew from old photographs.
When they arrived, he introduced himself to the man who opened the door. Upon hearing the name Münchhoff, the man said with surprise in his voice, “So now come in because this is all yours.” He had recognized the last name because villagers still referred to it as the Münchhoff farm.
Klaus’s father returned soon after for an emotional homecoming. “He was so overwhelmed that he cried for two weeks,” Klaus told the group of visiting journalists.
The farm looked very different than it had in 1953. It had been state-owned for more than three decades and run by a cooperative. The manor-style home had been subdivided into four shabby apartments and the many farm outbuildings were in varying stages of disrepair. Klaus considers himself lucky, though. The buildings were still being used to house livestock so they were standing – if not in the best of shape. Many farmers returned, he said, to find their houses and barns abandoned and destroyed.
The Münchhoff family was also fortunate that they were able to produce documentation staking claim to the property prior to it being taken over by the communist dictatorship. And although it took two years to get their land back, they were able to do so at no charge. Other farmers had to buy their land back or work in partnership with farmers from local cooperatives. Over the last 25 years, Klaus has restored his family’s home, at great personal expense.
This was only one of the stories we heard about the impact of the Iron Curtain.
Catarina Köchy, who farms with her husband, daughter and son-in-law on land in West Germany, just a few fields from where the wall once stood, acts as a guide at the Hötensleben border museum – where a 350 metre section of the wall and two guard towers still stand as a reminder of the country’s dark past.
As a young child, she recalled that her parents – and parents of her school classmates – would bring them to the wall during the holiday season to sing Christmas carols. She said that the students all hated the ritual – not understanding its importance. But after the wall fell and long-separated families and neighbours were reunited, those from East Germany said that they treasured the sound of that music knowing that they hadn’t been forgotten by their West German friends and family.
These stories, told as sidebars to the farm stories we were there to hear, were incredible to listen to and won’t soon be forgotten.