Taking Back the Farm: The Münchhoff Farm’s Story

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.

Farming is Big Business with a Big Heart

By Serra McSymytz, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Throughout October, we have been celebrating Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan, a province whose primary goods-producing sector is agriculture. The theme “Our Food Has a Story” has encouraged many farmers, ranchers, and industry employees to speak up and tell their farm stories. I grew up in the farming world and have worked in the industry and even I must admit I’ve been blown away by the caring and compassion laced through every tweet, post, and picture.

The people in this industry rely on the earth, plants, and animals to support their families, futures, and freedoms. Yes, agriculture has evolved over the last fifty years. Yes, fewer farmers are managing more land. Yes, when size dictates, it makes economic sense to incorporate your operation, but that doesn’t mean the family farm has been lost to history. 97% of all Canadian farms are still family owned and operated.1

big-business-image-2-farmingfood4uHere’s an alarming statistic: there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.2 That’s just within our borders, not to mention the hundreds of millions of tonnes of product we export to developing countries each year to help feed their people too. Talk about pressure to perform!

“…there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.”

Thankfully, we are fortunate enough to live in a country where science and innovation are encouraged and explored. Where farmers and ranchers have the knowledge, tools and technology to grow and raise safe, healthy and affordable food in an environmentally responsible manner. Today’s farming is big business, not the simple lifestyle our grandparents grew up with. Yet, Ben Parker had it right, with great power comes great responsibility.

big-business-image-1-a-iveyWe live in the age of science and technology, where information travels far and wide and everyone has access to the latest diet craze or scientific study. Unfortunately, despite agriculture’s enormous technological advancements in the last quarter century, we haven’t put much time or energy into promoting our impressive new tools and now we need to defend them.

To the 98% of our population that has no direct connection to the farm and no way of understanding what a Flexi-Coil 5000-57FT Air Drill is, why we use ivermectin on our livestock, or spray our crops with unpronounceable chemicals like difenoconazole or saflufenacil, farming sounds scary. But, to the remaining 2%, it means no top soil loss, healthy animals, higher yields and a cleaner environment!

You’d be hard pressed to find a cattle rancher who doesn’t feed their family with meat from their herd, or a farmer who doesn’t bring his children along to check crops for disease and pests. That’s because farmers believe in the technology and production practices they use to grow our food and they want consumers to have confidence in them too.

When asked what they would like to say to non-farmers, the consensus was, “We care about our livestock, land and about producing safe food for you and your family. Wherever you’re from and whatever you do, everyone is dependent on food, so take the time to learn about how your food is really produced, from many different sources. Appreciate the efforts of farmers everywhere.”

Despite the new state of agriculture and the ever-evolving landscape of farming, our food still comes from families who care about their animals, land and growing safe, healthy, and affordable food.

1, 2 The Real Dirt on Farming, (Toronto: Farm & Food Care Foundation, 2014), 2-3.

Our Food Has a Story

By Serra McSymytz and Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

kids-and-vegetable-patchAs agribusiness professionals we’ve had the opportunity to talk to farmers about why and how they farm.

Just twenty five years ago, this wasn’t even a conversation. Farmers just got on with the business of working the land or tending to their animals.

Today it’s different. Consumers also want to know why and how farmers carry out their duties, growing and raising the food we sometimes take for granted. But how do you explain what farming is?

Well, there are a lot of things it isn’t.

It isn’t a 40 hour work week, sleeping in on the weekends or even through the night, at times. It isn’t a guaranteed paycheque. It isn’t easy or cheap, low risk, or low stress.

So why? Why would someone gladly raise their hand and say “I want to be a farmer”? Generation after generation?

farmers-by-the-tractorFor many, farming is a place to raise their children where they’ll learn the value of hard work, build strong principles, strengthen their character and intellect, and earn a sense of responsibility.

Farming is rewarding and challenging. It is the opportunity to give back, to do more and be better. Farming is often part of a family’s history and their children’s future. It is satisfaction, seeing something you have sewn and tended grow and thrive. It is reaping the reward of a nutritious meal prepared using ingredients you yourself have nurtured.

Farming is technical and constantly evolving; an industry always on the verge of the next advancement. It is the chance to earn a living from a passion rather than an employer. Farming is the fulfillment of feeding your family, your neighbours, and our world. Farming is a measure of who the farmer is.

The thing about farming though, is that its product is so much bigger than just one person, one family one cow, one field, one farm.

It is our food. It is our story.

farmer-in-the-tractorThere is a narrative woven through our long history. Each chapter is unique and told by the stewards who contribute to it. The rancher, beekeeper, miller, baker, berry picker, processor, butcher, grocer and, in the end, the consumer.

It is the food choices you make for yourself and your family. Farming touches each and every one of our lives because it provides one of the most basic necessities. Whether you buy local, conventional, organic, free range, with or without added hormones, we are all a part of the same story.

Join us in October during Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan and share your food story. #OurFoodHasAStory #AgMonth16

For more on events in Saskatchewan for Agriculture Month, click here.

Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

Engineering Help for the Great Lakes

By Howard Tong

Howard TongMy name is Howard Tong, and I’m using my degree in environmental engineering to help solve algae issues in the Great Lakes.

I have always been interested in the natural environment. As a kid, I was amazed at everything from Canada’s majestic arctic landscape to the calming, light rain showers I experienced while growing up in the city. Over time, however, I learned about many environmental issues that threaten our natural world, and those issues made me very concerned – my vivid imagination of what could happen only made things worse.

After a lot of doom and gloom, though, I decided I could make a difference by building a career focused on finding solutions. Now, with a degree in environmental engineering from the University of Waterloo, I am working on algae issues in the Great Lakes from both a drinking water and agricultural perspective.

As my undergrad came to a close, our class had the opportunity to help a drinking water treatment plant in Elgin County prepare for a potential harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie. Algae blooms in the summer months have already been a major problem for some municipalities surrounding Lake Erie, and after site visits and much lab work, we proposed a few solutions that could be used to retrofit the plant if the need arises.

Fast forward to my job at Farm and Food Care Ontario, where I’m working now as an environmental research assistant, and I am once again investigating algal blooms. This time, however, it is from an agricultural perspective.

When I was looking at the problem from the drinking water perspective, I looked for treatment solutions to eliminate toxins and bacteria. From an agricultural perspective, I am now looking at ways to prevent the problem by reducing nutrient runoff from farms — just one several causes of algae problems.

Read More: Farm Initiatives to Protect the Great Lakes

While the environmental world is vast, it is great to see a connection between municipalities and the agriculture industry in handling this shared problem. In the end, both types of solution are valuable to minimize the risk of harmful algal blooms.

Solving the algae problem in Lake Erie and other waterways is a huge challenge, but that’s why I decided to become an environmental engineer in the first place. The natural environment is truly a complex system, and every day I seem to have more questions. Thankfully, though, I have also learned many answers.

Earth Day is Every Day on Canadian Farms

Since 1970, we’ve been celebrating Earth Day (the largest environmental event in the world) annually on April 22. But on Canadian farms, farmers celebrate Earth Day each and every day.

Farmers understand the importance of healthy soil, water and air. They live on farms with their families and they depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock. Farmers want to leave their farms in better shape for their kids than when they started farming.

Urban growth also continues at a staggering pace – with housing developments being constructed on once productive farm land near urban centres – which is another reason that farmers must protect, preserve and nurture their valuable farmland.

Here’s some of the ways that farmers strive towards protecting their farmland and creating a cleaner environment for generations to come.  

ED - Soil HealthSoil health – sustainability

  • Our very existence on this planet is dependent on a few inches of topsoil. Over two thirds of farmers use conservation tilling practices to help preserve that precious resource.
  • When people talk about ‘bringing soils to life,’ they literally mean increasing the amount of living creatures in the soil. You can measure this by counting earthworm holes in a square foot. Another way is to bury a piece of 100% cotton in the top layer of the soil to measure levels of decomposition after a few weeks or months. You can actually see how the microbiological activity turns last year’s plant stalks into smaller organic partials that build soil and bind carbon, reducing the impacts of climate change.
  • Greenhouse gases are a concern to agriculture as they are to society as a whole but farmers can actually sequester carbon in the soil as they build organic matter through good soil management. This is good for the soil and good for the planet because it reduces atmospheric CO2.  Farmers can help reduce emissions and transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter – and ensuring a sustainable food supply despite a changing climate. The carbon sequestered (saved in the soil) due to conservation tillage in Ontario alone equals 600 kilotons/year. That’s equivalent to taking 125,000 cars off the road each year.

Environmental training for farmers

  • In all provinces across Canada, an educational initiative called the Environmental Farm Plan is helping farmers assess their farms for environmental concerns and set goals and timetables for improvements. In Prince Edward Island, for example, 90 percent of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and in Ontario, about 70 percent of farmers have participated and invested over $600 million into on-farm environmental improvements over the last 20 years.

Did you know Conservation TillageTillage

  • Tillage is an age-old practice and refers to plowing or working up the soil, something that’s done mostly to control weeds. Many farmers in Canada have adopted “conservation or minimal tillage” or “no-till” practices. This means that crops are grown with minimal or no cultivation of the soil. Any plant materials remaining from the previous year’s crop, like corn stubble, is left on the soil building up its organic matter.  Minimal or no-till practices also help maintain populations of beneficial insects and soil and nutrients are less likely to be lost from the field.
  • Farmers also strive to prevent soil erosion caused by wind or water. One of the ways they do this is by planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion. Cover crops can do exactly what their name implies; cover the soil during the rest of the season before or after the main crop has been grown. Cover crops may be planted over a whole field for erosion protection, or they may be selectively planted in the most erosion prone areas. Cover crops are not harvested and cost money to plant, but their benefit comes from improving the soil quality and preventing erosion.

 

Water

  • Farmers rely on water for their crops and livestock to flourish. Most, 91.5 per cent to be exact – rely solely on precipitation for watering crops. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.
  • In Canada, only 8.5 per cent of farms use any form of irrigation. The remaining 91.5 per cent of farms rely solely on precipitation for crop watering. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, apples, tender fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.

 

Natural environment

  • Work is ongoing across Canada preserving hundreds of thousands of acres of land that are inhabited by wildlife – whether that be forests, swamps and other natural spaces that are also part of a farmer’s property. Many farmers have also created, improved or expanded farm forests, ponds and river edges.

 

These are just a few of the environmental initiatives taking place on farms across this country. Today, farmers across Canada are pleased to join with their fellow Canadians to celebrate this special day.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

 

Guest Blog: Biotech Benefits for the Environment and You, Too

By Bob Bartley, grain farmer based at Roland, Manitoba.

I have been a farmer for 40 plus years and I have grown genetically enhanced (GE) crops since 1996. We grow corn, soybeans and canola, all of which are GE as well as other crops which are not. I have seen many benefits to this technology through the years, but what is in it for the consumer?

IMG_2241I really don’t consider the crops I grow to be ready-to-eat food, like apples, carrots or potatoes, but more like ingredients to make food products such as margarine, flour and feed for livestock. Government regulators and scientists have questioned the safety of GE crops right from the beginning. As a result, these crops have undergone testing far beyond that required for other new varieties. There have been about 2,000 published studies on GE crop safety, I’m told. The results say that the GE crops now grown are as safe as any others. Some reports say even safer. There have also been several studies showing that they reduce food prices too-a direct result of the higher farm yields. GE crops are one reason why North American consumers have the safest, highest quality and most affordable food in the world.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world. Every day the world’s population increases. Farmers are tasked to produce more food on fewer acres and it’s not something we can do on our own.  Farmers need the help of innovative plant breeding tools to increase the capability of the crops we grow – innovations that increase production and allow our harvests to be used in many different ways to provide food for you and me.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world

The discovery of the herbicide glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant crops changed agriculture. They have allowed farmers to control perennial weeds in crops instead of depending on summer-fallowing, which requires no crop to be produced for an entire year.  Also, with the new technology, the crop stubble remaining after grain harvest is undisturbed and this allows for more moisture retention and reduced soil erosion due to wind and water. There is less fuel used on the farm because of the reduced soil tillage.

Bob BartleyInsects have always been a threat to our crops and thus to our livelihood. The Bt gene in the corn we grow, gives the crop resistance to the European corn borer. In earlier years, we used insecticides to kill the borer but they also killed beneficial insects such as lady bugs. Bt is pest specific and only kills the corn borer. Insecticide is not applied now which saves another trip across the field.

Farmers have always been stewards of the land using the tools available to them.  We strive to leave our land with the same or increased production capability compared to when we started farming. Carbon sequestering in farm soils, through no-till and reduced tillage, results in a reduction of green house gas (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.

What’s in it for the consumer? Society’s buying habits have leaned towards being environmentally friendly and sustainable. So here it is!  Better air and water quality due to reduced erosion and reduced tillage. Fewer pesticides applied and less fossil fuel consumption resulting in lower greenhouse gases. Drought-resistant crops that produce with more efficient use of water. Protection of beneficial insects. It turns out that what’s good for me as a farmer is also good for you the consumer.  Some call that win-win.

This post first appeared in the Financial Post, April 13, 2016, and is used with permission. 

Water, water everywhere…or not

The United Nations has declared today – March 22, 2016 – as World Water Day.

Did you know Canada has approximately 20 per cent of the world’s total fresh water supply? But, less than half of our supply is considered “renewable” — that is, it’s readily available and of a certain quality. That means, based on water cycling and recycling times, that Canada has only 7 per cent of the global “renewable” supply of water. Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Did you know 061 (Canada)What about farmers and water?

Farmers are the original environmentalists and understand the importance of healthy soil, water and air. Farmers live on their farms with their families and depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock.

Farmers work hard to grow food sustainably, ensuring the land is of good quality for future generations and is left in better shape than how it was when they started farming it. Canadian farmers are always proactively working to protect the environment and growing more food with fewer inputs such as water.

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International Women’s Day: Celebrating Canadian Women in Ag

International Womens DayWe’re celebrating International Women’s Day 2016 with a nod to all the awesome women in Canadian agriculture.

Did You Know: The latest census from Statistics Canada reported more than 27 per cent of farmers are female. Women can be found in agriculture at every step from farm to fork!

Here are the stories of seven women in Canadian agriculture: Continue reading

Fact or Fiction: You can save 1,300 gallons of water by skipping your lunch burger

FactFictonThere’s an infographic floating around on social media. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

It claims you can save 1,300 gallons of water if you:
– don’t flush your toilet for six months, OR
– don’t take a shower for three months, OR
– for lunch today, don’t eat one burger.

Turns out, this is FICTION.

Let’s look at how the cow (behind that burger) really measures up.

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