W. German farmers eager to keep tradition - and subsidies
Hausen, West Germany — The past sits like a scarecrow over Josef Glasl's fields. His family has farmed since 1648, the end of the Thirty Years' War. The sparse soil around his farm has been tilled since the 11th century.
``I feel a responsiblity to my family to farm,'' says Mr. Glasl.
Now, however, that responsibility is threatened. This week President Reagan, at the Venice summit of major free world trading nations, will ask the Europeans and Japanese to endorse the elimination of farm subsidies. Senior administration officials, in briefings before the summit, have stressed that they consider this a prime time to attack the agriculture problem since several officials face elections in the next few weeks. Once the elections are over, they argue, agreements worked out over the next 18 months will not be impeded by campaign considerations.
This year, the European Community will spend about $26 billion supporting their farmers. The US will spend at least $23 billion.
German farmers can get price supports, a reduction in their social security insurance taxes, and a lower tax on buying diesel fuel for their tractors. The Bavarian state government, where almost 10 percent of the population farms, is considering further aid, calling it an ``ecological'' subsidy. Any new subsidy, however, would have to get cleared by Bonn and the EC in Brussels.
In Bavaria, the elimination of subsidies would be especially devastating.
The average farm here is only 35 acres compared with 430 acres in the United States.
About 50 percent of the farms are between 2 to 25 acres, and almost half the farmers are part-timers. The soil is like a thin brown sauce covering a bed of gravel left behind during the ice age. Skies are gray or rainy for over half of the year, leading to a short growing season. Farmers find it is cheaper to buy imported cattle feed from the US than to use Bavarian-grown feed.
If forced to compete against ``factory farms'' in the US or other parts of Europe, Bavarian farmers worry they might soon lose their famous trachten, a short plain pea green coat, that the farmers wear almost like a badge of honor.
To Germans, the prospect of potato farmers losing their farming heritage, makes the problem a social issue. ``It symbolizes their past,'' says a US official in Munich, which is about 16 miles from Hausen.
This is certainly true of Glasl's farm. On 125 acres - 43 of them rented from a neighbor - Glasl grows potatoes, wheat, and barley and fattens bulls before they become schnitzel. His farm blends into the landscape like a postcard. That is the way both he and the Bavarian government want it.
``I protect the earth,'' he tells a visitor. Over the decades his family has worked around the trees and streams. ``A factory farmer does not care about such things,'' he says. ``With family farming you treat everything differently.''
Keeping such family farming going here, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. In West Germany as a whole, the number of farms has declined by over 50 percent since the 1960s. In Bavaria, there are 245,000 farms compared with 398,000 in the 1960s.
A short distance from Hausen is Starnberg. In this farming village, not a single farmer has an heir to his farm. This is especially troubling in Bavaria, where traditionally the oldest son would inherit the farm.
This is not to say things are totally hopeless for the farmers. In wheat production, some of the yields per acre are higher than the US. The German farmer is currently working with scientists to improve productivity.
But keeping the farmers politically happy is a challenge. Last April, Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss told the farmers the subsidies might be plowed under. Instead, he suggested a straight income supplement.
The danger for the politicans is alienating the farmers. Franz W"ohrle, a press representative of the Bavarian Farmers Association, says the farmers feel ``punished by the government.''
Farmer Glasl agrees. ``There are others who get subsidies too,'' he says, such as coal miners. ``The farmer should not be the only one to suffer.''