The Rebirth of the East European Countryside?

Farming practically collapsed in East-Central Europe after 1989. First came the dissolution of the collective farms, then came the influx of agricultural products from the West, and finally came integration into the European Union. Although some countries didn't have collective farms (Poland) and other countries have yet to join the EU (Serbia, Albania), the pattern of a sharp drop in agricultural production holds true across the region. In the first 18 years of transition, production dropped by as much as 30 percent and, despite some recovery, did not get back to the levels of 1989.

Throughout the region there has been an emptying out of the countryside. Farms have either disappeared or become more efficient, so fewer farmworkers are needed. It's the common story of modernity: a rural generation becomes an urban one. This process has been considerably slower in the Balkans, where agricultural employment has dipped only about 10 percent over that 18-year period. In the rest of East-Central Europe, however, the decline has been dramatic: a drop of more than 60 percent.

With the introduction of more modern technology and more intensive use of chemical fertilizers, agricultural production has become considerably more efficient in the region. Yields, after an initial drop, have increased remarkably. Once net importers, some countries have become net agricultural exporters. Poland, for instance, is now sending enormous amounts of diary products, poultry, and even tobacco to the EU, which absorbed 75 percent of its exports in the first half of last year.

Agriculture in East Germany experienced some of the same trends as the rest of the region. There was, for instance, a sharp drop in farm employment -- 80 percent in the first five years after reunification in 1990. But there was also a lot more money, from the united German government, to ease this transformation. Although the government encouraged the development of family farms -- which predominates in the west -- the eastern lands focused more on cooperatives. And whereas industrial production in the former East Germany bottomed out, the farming sector remained stable, with output increasing and yields approaching those in the west only five years after reunification.

Back in February, I took a trip to Brodowin, a small town in what was once the East German countryside northeast of Berlin and near the Polish border. I was the guest of Bill and Anne Beittel, who once worked for the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that hired me in 1990 to travel through the region. Bill picked me up at the train station, and we stopped off at a farm store on the way back to their house. The store was clean, cheery, and full of organic produce, much of which had been produced on the farm itself.

The farm had once been a collective farm focusing on livestock. "As a production unit, it was simply coming to an end," Bill Beittel explained to me about the farm's trajectory after the Berlin Wall fell. "They didn't know what to do with all the liquid waste from the animals, so they were simply channeling it into the lakes. As a result, some of the lakes were just on the verge of dying. That stopped overnight. The conversion to an organic farm takes time. For that, they needed financing, and they found financing from a real estate agent in Berlin, who had a lot of money and a wife who had had serious health problems and had been treated successfully in an anthroposophical hospital."

The farm went organic, and it basically saved the town. "Brodowin has an unemployment ratio of roughly 5 percent. Nationwide in Germany, it's 8 or 9 percent, and in Brandenburg, it is probably on or above the 15 percent level," Beittel explained. "We have a kindergarten right across the street here -- which is bursting its seams. There are a lot of kids in Brodowin. We know other villages, perhaps a bit smaller, where the young people from about 16 on are gone. They have just a handful of younger kids, and the population is getting older and older."

I talked with the Beittels about their work in the late 1960s to bridge East and West Germany, the impact of reunification on eastern Germany, their life in the countryside, and the relatively new phenomenon of transition towns.

The Interview

You mentioned that one of the big concerns here was the farm, which had been a collective farm.

Bill: In English, if you want to be derogatory, you'd call it a "collective farm."

And it had pigs and produced milk --

Bill: It also had cattle.

And it employed quite a few people.

Bill: Quite a number because it was not as mechanized as it is today.

But it made a transition.

Bill: As a production unit, it was simply coming to an end. They didn't know what to do with all the liquid waste from the animals, so they were simply channeling it into the lakes. As a result, some of the lakes were just on the verge of dying. That stopped overnight. The conversion to an organic farm takes time. For that, they needed financing, and they found financing from a real estate agent in Berlin, who had a lot of money and a wife who had had serious health problems and had been treated successfully in an anthroposophical hospital.

And this is why this is a Demeter farm. Demeter is the trade name that employs methods developed by Rudolf Steiner, the biodynamic practices that people accustomed to conventional farming find difficult to understand. For instance, you fill a cow's horn with manure and bury it, and then you dig it up six months later, when the moon is in the right phase, then you mix this horn full of manure with so many gallons of water in a big vat and then you spray it on the field to awaken the powers of nature. They also use manure in more conventional ways, of course. But they don't use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But the particular magic associated with this approach is difficult for dirt farmers to understand. We think that it would have made sense to make it an organic farm, but without this additional input, which I think alienated some people.

The farm now is largely owned by a family with a great deal of experience with large farms, not with organic farms, but who are willing to learn about organic farming and promote it. Some local people are still involved financially, and other local people are employed by the farm. The farm can sell its organic products at a higher price than the stuff in the supermarket.

So, has the farm "saved" the community?

Bill: It has indeed saved the community. Brodowin has an unemployment ratio of roughly 5 percent. Nationwide in Germany, it's 8 or 9 percent, and in Brandenburg, it is probably on or above the 15 percent level. It's not only the big farm. There is also a goat farm and a sheep farm, both of which are organic (Demeteer) farms. There's another man who produces meat products from game. We have a carpenter. We have a kindergarten right across the street here -- which is bursting its seams. There are a lot of kids in Brodowin. We know other villages, perhaps a bit smaller, where the young people from about 16 on are gone. They have just a handful of younger kids, and the population is getting older and older. In Brodowin, there are a lot of old people, but there are also younger families. It's not just the pastor with his seven kids. We have two families with five kids each.

So do you see Brodowin as the future of Eastern Germany? Earlier you said, "people were not getting up off their hind legs to do things," but it sounds like people are right here.

Bill: It's a mixture in Brodowin. There is perhaps more getting up here than elsewhere, partially due to the farm, because people see that it's prospering. You can see it in the machinery they're using. In my book, the farm is almost too large. That means that there are enormous tractors charging around the countryside. It's almost industrial farming. Industrial organic.

They have a phrase for it in the United States: "the organic industrial complex." The organic farms in California have gotten so big that they are just like industrial farms.

Anne: They had a study here on organic farming and how it mixes with nature protection. It was a three-year intensive study that produced a book. They made some good suggestions. For example, they found that if they don't cut the grain as deep, then they protect birds that nest on the ground. The project ended, but they keep in contact and the discussion continues.

Also part of the new excitement is the transition town movement. We went to a seminar on this topic a few years ago and together with some students at Eberswalde University -- they have a school for continuing education with a focus on sustainable development and agriculture -- started a transition town project there.

I'm not familiar with the term you used: "transition towns"?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.