Germany is one of the main agricultural countries in Europe. It has seen huge structural changes since the 1950s. Historically marked by major regional differences in farm structures, it has experienced similar trends throughout the country towards specialisation, intensification and land concentration. Today, farm succession and access to land have become major issues. Like in other neighbouring countries, agroecological practices are rapidly developing among farmers and consumers, but remain a marginal part of the agricultural and food sector.
Like other EU countries, Germany has experienced a rapid specialisation and intensification of its agriculture over the past decades.
A major component of the landscape : more than half of German territory - almost 19 million hectares - is used for farming. However, on average, Germany however loses 45 000 hectares of farmland to urban development and infrastructures every year.
A rapid decline in farm numbers: Today, there are about 280 000 farms in Germany, where there were almost twice as much in 1990. Every year, about 4000 farms in Germany are giving up. The death of farms goes along with a tremendous loss of traditional knowledge related to farming.
A changing farm population: during the 20th century, major rural exodus led over 4 million workers to other sectors, mostly industry. In parallel, seasonal workers (currently 20% of the workforce) are replacing family workers, including many foreigners working in precarious conditions.
The development of intensive farming and agrobusinesses : 9 farms out of 10 are specialised farms, either in animal husbandry or in crop farming. The development of a specialised, capital-intensive model has also meant land concentration, with a fast increase in the average farm size. Today, 12% of farms of 100 hectares or more represent 56% of all farmland.
While agricultural production has a low impact on the GDP (0,08%), the food processing and retail sectors constitute the fourth largest industry in Germany, which is the third biggest food exporter in the world. The majority food system is based on agro-food industries providing cheap food to consumers, with about half of the food sold by discount supermarkets.
Different inheritance laws and historic ownership systems lie at the root of the differing landscapes in Germany – large land holdings in the North and smaller land holdings in the South. The system of Grundherrschaft (landlordship) prevalent in western and southern Germany stood in contrast to eastern Germany with its system of Gutsherrschaft (estate lordship), which was characterised by large noble estates and a peasantry heavily burdened with services to landlords and owning little land of its own.
The inheritance system of “Realteilung” (system of equal inheritance, partible inheritance), practiced in the predominantly catholic South, divides the farm into smaller units for the children. In contrast, in the protestant practice of “Anerbenrecht”, as practiced in many regions of Northern Germany, the land was passed on undivided to only one inheritor. Very large land holdings in Northeast Germany date back to the 15th century land tenure systems of the large land owners known as the Prussian Junkers.
The situation in East Germany took a special drift because of its communist past and features very large land holdings. After the reunification, many large producer cooperative farms were split up.
Young farmers in Germany are rare: only 8 % of the farm holders are under 35. German farmers are nonetheless amongst the ‘youngest’ in the EU. At 7%, the rate of aged farmer holders (above 65 years old) in Germany is also quite low for an EU country. The group aged 45 to 55 accounts for the largest share of the farming population. In 2010, 70% of the 187,000 farms with a manager aged 45 or older faced unclear or a lack of succession. These holdings account for approx. 7,5 million hectares, i.e. 45% of German agricultural area. The closing down of farms is expected to further accelerate agricultural structural change and increase the share of very large, intensive farms.
Statistics show that the larger the farm, and the more important as a source of income, the more frequently a successor is nominated well before the senior farm manager’s retirement.
Farms are not often passed on to the farmers’ daughters. Women in general are underrepresented in farm ownership and management in Germany, only 9% are farm holders, one of the lowest numbers in Europe.
For newcomers to farming, the main entry problem is the availability and price of land. The scarcity of farmland results in high prices that require new entrants to have a significant amount of capital to start a business. Inheriting a farm holding is for many candidates the only way of entering into the sector. Since 2008 the exemption regulation (Verschonungsregelung) enables an uncomplicated farm transfer outside the family. But extra-family farm transfer remains very marginal in Germany.
In Germany, 60% of agricultural land is farmed under tenancy contracts. Selling and buying agricultural land has to be registered with the relevant agricultural authority at the local level. On certain conditions (e.g. if the buyer is rejected for being a non-farmer), the tenant farmer may pre-empt the land.
There are considerable differences in land prices in the various regions of Germany. However, the general trend is clear: between 2005 and 2011 the cost of an average hectare increased by 55%, up to €13.500.
There are several reasons for this:
Energy policies boosting the renewal energy sector have made biogas production based on crops very attractive to farmers. Yet, this has led to landscape and environmental problems as well as increasing land prices.
A renewed interest of speculative capital and value storing in agricultural land.
The increase in land prices goes along with the difficulty of start-ups and small established farmers to receive capital from banks (after Basel 3). Regular agriculture is not profitable enough as the relation of investment (cost per workplace) to turnover is very low compared to other sectors. Often agriculture has relatively weak links with the local society and the added value does not stay in the regions.
Public surveys show an increasing interest from consumers in food and animal welfare; regional supply and organic labelling. Organic agriculture represents 4% of German food consumption, and 7% of agricultural land. With the fast increase in demand for organic food, Germany is forced to import a lot.
An old but recently expanding movement in Germany focuses on the social, ecologic and economic importance of peasant agriculture and natural, healthy food. Part of it is anchored in the ideas of biodynamic farming and social threefolding, developed by Rudolf Steiner almost 100 years ago.
Community supported agriculture is still a small but growing movement with about 87 initiatives.
All general agricultural data is based on the German federal government’s annual report on agricultural policy, BMELV, http://www.bmelv.de/, as well as on the official national statistics: Statistisches Bundesamt, in particular:
Idylle ade! Vom Bauern zum Unternehmer, 2011 and
Wer produziert unsere Nahrungsmittel? Aktuelle Ergebnisse der
Landwirtschaftszählung, 2010, 2011
and on DBV, Situationsbericht 2012/2013, 2013
On regional inheritance laws and ownership systems, read: Pedlow, G.W.: The landed elite of Hesse-Cassel in the nineteenth century. In : Gibson and Blinkhorn (1991): Landownership and Power in Modern Europe, Harper Collins
Schmidt, Gustav (2007): Hofübergabe und Austrag – Nach oberfränkischen Verhältnissen von früher bis heute, Heimatbeilage zum Oberfränkischen Schulanzeiger Nr. 331, Bayreuth: Regierung von Oberfranken.