- This interview was originally written for the magazine Sedmá generace (Seventh Generation).
Shall we be concerned by the decline of organic farmers? Are young people interested by this sometime ungrateful work? In that regard, how can Germany inspire us? And how can the situation be improved by a Farmers School? We asked these and other questions to organic farmer and lecturer Jiří Prachař.
According to the European commissioner for agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski, the EU lost 4 of total 15 million farms within just one decade in between 2005-2015. It means we lost in average 1,000 farms a day and forecasts suggest such a trend will continue. The situation is similar in the Czech Republic – there were 533,000 people working in agriculture in 1989, while nowadays it is just around 100,000. However, we must note that despite the decreasing number of farmers, the total area of agricultural land and productivity have remained quite stable since the 1990s, and it is even growing for some commodities. Why should we then be worried about the decreasing number of people working in agriculture?
The decreasing number of farmers is caused by the fact that there is now more sophisticated and perfect agricultural machinery capable of cultivating even larger areas. But the question is: what does it do to a landscape and how does it change soil quality? Are we able to pay attention to details, even to a certain locality? Can we provide the landscape with what it needs? Or are we creating a homogeneous landscape without biodiversity, a landscape that produces large amounts of food but for which we don’t know how long it will remain productive?
However, creators of new technologies in agriculture declare that they are able to be both comprehensive and detail-focused, whether it concerns monitoring drought or pests, and that they definitely can contribute to reducing the application of chemical agents.
When I look around at the landscape, I cannot see the sense of detail. Respect should be paid again to certain things in nature. For instance, groves used to be within 50 meters more or less from each other, ideally even less, because it is the distance that even the smallest insect will cover. When we have a vast field of 100 hectares of monoculture, we cannot talk about biodiversity. Simply no machine will allow that. Meaningful landscaping depends on how a farmer understands nature.
What factors contribute to the decreasing number of farmers?
I think that agriculture, as it is currently practiced, is no longer attractive to people. I experienced it firsthand because I come from a village and I was absolutely disgusted by the management of the local agricultural cooperative. Though I really enjoyed working the land and with the animals, I did not want to enter agriculture either because of that. I came to that much later, by detour.
Which aspects don’t you like?
There is a joke in Germany: “What is the difference between a truck driver and a farmer? Passing landscape seems faster to the truck driver.“ I have nothing against modern technologies but if one has a relation to nature, animals and plants, and wants to work in the heart of nature, this cannot attract them. Today’s trend in industrial agriculture is not appealing to me, and I think neither to many young people.
There is a silent suicide epidemic of farmers around the world. In France, on average, one farmer takes their own life every other day. In India, numbers have reached hundreds of thousands since the 1980s. We have no statistics regarding this particular group in the Czech Republic, but foreign research shows that farmers suffer excessively from depression and mental disorders compared to the rest of the population. How do you explain this? What pressures do farmers face?
Personally, I don’t know anyone who committed suicide, but I do know a lot of stories that are told. In India, the situation in agriculture is so desperate that people really don’t know how to go on. There is political support for large-scale, industrial agriculture and farmers are pushed into it. This is well illustrated by the documentary Dairy Complex (2017), which beautifully describes what farmers are struggling with. At the end of the film, a farmer gets the news that price milk has risen by one cent, which brings tears in their eyes. This pressure that farmers face is absolutely real.
Agriculture should not be a sector of economy, nor should health or culture. When it comes to caring for the landscape and producing food, economy should not dictate to farmers what they should do and how. Because economists know nothing about what is good for soil and animals. Economists want low prices and products that can be well sold on the market. And this pressure can lead many people to depression or even suicide when they see that they cannot do their job properly or even at all – when they see it is not good for themselves, their families or the land.
In Czech Republic, most people working in agriculture are between the age of 45 – 59. At the same time, thousands of graduates leave high schools, special schools and universities with an agriculture focus every year. Where are they and why don’t they rejuvenate the thinning ranks of employees in agriculture?
When I studied at the German Faculty of Organic Agriculture at the University of Kassel, only a fifth of the graduates really went to work in agriculture, in primary production. The rest ended up in consulting, in specialized plants such as composting plants and the like. I know from experience that it is similar with the employment of graduates from Czech agricultural universities. Agricultural university education is the easiest way to get a degree, so when someone needs a degree, they graduate from these schools without even intending to be a farmer.
To the aforementioned generation of 45-59 years old: on a German farm I experienced a generational change of farmers. The old farmer was 60 and retired, there were new people coming and he got upset: “Those people come here to work on a farm and still want time for themselves! For their self-development! That is outrageous!” He was a man who never took holidays, he is from a generation that worked from morning till night.
Nowadays, another generation has come that does not prefer such a one-sided life. I’m teaching a German biodynamic training at Freie Ausbildung, in the northern Rhineland, and most of my students are looking forward to enter the agricultural profession. They will find their own approach to it, they will probably not work in the same way as older generations as they have totally different qualities and priorities. They are much more oriented towards the social dimension of farming, and most of them want to initiate some kind of community supported agriculture. It is important for them to have a dialogue with customers, to inspire each other. Ecology is more natural for them. It is important for them that their work has some overlap, that they create truly healthy products and revitalize the landscape. And then, if work then makes sense to them, physical difficulties don’t become an obstacle.
Why have you decided to go to Germany? What differences can you see between attitudes towards organic farming in Germany and in the Czech Republic?
The way towards organic farming in the Czech Republic is not simple. I wanted to understand the matter in depth, to learn biodynamics, and I did not find much possibilities in the Czech Republic. So I went to Germany to experience biodynamic agriculture in real operations. In Germany, biodynamics and organic farming are more deeply rooted in tradition. Almost all the farms I visited have been operating in organic mode for thirty years or more and they have been evolving all along. It’s easily visible when a farm has been developed following such guidelines for several generations. Also, general awareness of organic farming is completely different there: organic food is a big trend and because of that, its price is often comparable to ordinary food.
President Zeman emphasized in his last New Year´s speech that he would not be pleased if the Czech Republic became some kind of ecological open-air museum with a low standard of living. No one in such a position could afford to say this in Germany or generally in the West. It would be a clear political misstep.
Block 1. Assessments of CAP National Strategic Plans
A report by IFOAM Organics Europe assessed some of the CAP national strategic plans. The analysis is clear: the plans lack ambition and the European Commission must ensure that Member States review their draft Strategic Plans and come up with better measures and more appropriate budgets to boost organic production and demand.
Even in Germany, the number of farmers is declining. But there is also an increasing number of young, organic farmers.
Definitely. Since 2016, I have been working as a lecturer and seminar leader for an ecological and biodynamic training at Freie Ausbildung. We had approximately twenty-eight applicants every year, but lately it has jumped and now we have got forty-eight of them! The situation is the same in the south of Germany, where ecological education Freie Landbauschule Bodensee (agricultural school near Bodensee lake) also operates. In eastern Germany there is even a new school for organic farmers that is opening thanks to a farmers’ initiative. This shows a huge interest and a new trend among young people who want to really change the situation, not just talk about it.
In the Czech Republic, however, all agricultural unions and organisations repeat the mantra that young people do not want to work in agriculture. But can this be said when we have no data? The fact that they are not in agriculture does not mean that they do not want to farm. Foreign surveys show that young people are interested in entering agriculture. This was also confirmed by a survey by the Land Foundation. The question is whether or nor we put fundamental barriers n young people in this regard.
I have experienced this myself, this barrier is the education system. When you want to study in Germany, first you have to choose an educational farm, join it and work there for a whole year. During this year, you also go through longer theoretical courses once a month,while the training takes place directly on the farms. This way, one learns much more because practice dominates. While in the Czech Republic, according to my experience and also to feedback from many farmers, trainees from high schools or manual schools are totally unprepared for practical training. Although they have already went through two or three years of study, it has been mainly about a theory the cannot use in practice at all. Furthermore, ecology is almost absent in usual education. I still hear arguments against organic farming, arguments that have survived in the West for twenty years.
Can you give us an example of such an argument?
For example, the idea that organic farming could never feed the whole planet, that it is actually only intended for a handful of chosen ones and cannot work in reality. However, there are many studies that prove the opposite. Exclusively organic farming would feed the entire planet if these three conditions are met:
- Firstly, we should not waste as much food as we do today, when one third of the world’s food is devalued and thrown away,
- Secondly, meat consumption must be reduced and,
- Thirdly, we should not feed farmed animals with crops such as vegetables, groats, cereals, soybeans and the like. This would free up space for growing crops for humans.
Such a system would feed the entire population purely from organic production.
I will go back to the young people: the first obstacle is a good education, which would be attractive, and where those interested could learn from real practical work. That is why we, in the Association of Local Food Initiatives (AMPI), have founded a Farmers School to allow them to enter organic farming.
Who stands behind the Farmers School?
The idea arose when I became acquainted with the aforementioned German educational model, which seemed to me much more meaningful than what I had known until then. About two years ago, I started to think about the idea of designing a similar educational model for the Czech Republic. Shortly afterwards, I met Jan Valeška from AMPI, who had similar ideas. We joined forces and together we created the Farmers School project, which we started implementing this spring. Many personalities of organic farming now belong to the school, theybelieve in it and support it.
Is there anything similar in our country? And what interest in the school have you seen so far?
The equivalent of such practical training, which takes place on farms, does not exist in our country. It is a unique concept, where the trainee works for two years on selected organic and biodynamic farms in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, and for the third year we are able to arrange an internship abroad – in Germany, Switzerland, England or Scandinavia. The practical work is complemented by theoretical seminars that take place on educational farms. We explain everything in detail on our website www.farmarskaskola.cz. In terms of interest, I can see that the atmosphere in the Czech Republic is gradually changing. When I left for Germany seven years ago, public awareness of ecology was definitely lower. But because of the obvious natural disasters and their effects on humans, people are starting to think more about how to take care of the landscape so that it stays alive and continues to feed us. They are beginning to understand that this issue is of the utmost importance and it is really time to act. There is a growing number of people interested in environmental education at the Farmers School, after all, it has only been a few weeks since we launched the project. But we already received very positive feedback on our work, both from existing organic farmers and from the public, which welcomes and supports our initiative.
You have involved a number of farms in the Farmers School programme, which have promised to provide facilities and cooperation. How many farms are there and what kind are they?
At the moment, fifteen farms are involved and they are completely different. Among them you will find both greengrocers who farm half a hectare and large organic farms with a thousand hectares. We also cooperate with medium-sized enterprises that focus on animal husbandry, viticulture, fruit and vegetables, and plants. It’s very colourful. Although all farms have organic farming or Demeter certification, we do not require certification. Above all, we want them to meet the criteria of organic farming, farm and train with the heart, and be able to provide our trainee with adequate guidance.
Why are you personally primarily interested in biodynamic agriculture? What are its specifics?
Biodynamic agriculture is one of the oldest forms of organic farming. It was founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 and his products are now marked with the Demeter trademark. This mark represents the strictest environmental guidelines ever. A biodynamic farm is guided by the idea of a “closed agricultural organism”. This means that each farm can produce everything it needs for its operation. I am thinking mainly of fertilisers, feed, seeds and so on. Thus, in addition to crop production, each biodynamic farm also has cattle breeding, and thus naturally supports biodiversity and locality. The biodynamic farmer also uses a lot of organic preparations that act on a homeopathic basis. There is a large number of scientific studies that prove the uniqueness and functionality of the entire biodynamic management system for soil fertility and food quality.
New social agri-food movements have declared the need to transform food systems as well as the shape of the current dominant industrial agriculture. Should biodynamic and organic farming become the dominant model, i.e. the mainstream system, or will they always be just a part of a larger puzzle?
I can clearly see that biodynamic and organic farming are the way forward, there is no other way to go. And many people see that this has to change. At the same time, however, I think that every model that emerges may not be universal and applicable everywhere. The point is for people to take an interest in the origin of food, in nature and in each other. This will lead them to develop their own model in their locality, which will suit farmers, consumers and food processors.
Not far from Düsseldorf, near Wuppertal, there is a small valley with five biodynamic farms, which have established a small wholesale store. This small group began to buy from other smaller farms and helped them with sales by distributing their products and food to schools and local kitchens. Purely local. They had no products other than from a radius of sixty kilometers and operated from person to person. And that’s it, talk to your farmer in person and know your consumer. Then it is possible to accomodate each other – for example, when a farmer has fifty salads that will soon bloom and communicates with his customers, there is a greater chance that he will sell them all. There is a direct link. At the beginning of the season, the five farmers from Wuppertal agree on who will grow what, what they specialize in, and then they take it to a collection point every week and one person distributes the goods.
The farms also share all the technology and equipment: four of them folded into a combine harvester, two on a plough. Schools go there for work stays, they do various courses and it lives beautifully locally. But it is because people are interested in themselves, they are interested in the landscape and healthy food, so something new and original can always come about. They do not have to be told to set up a functioning system, they will find it themselves, one that works exactly for them, with their farm, in their specific inimitable conditions.
Jiří Prachař is a biodynamic farmer and educator. He studied Sustainable Landscape Development at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice and did a year of organic study at the University of Kassel in Germany. In Germany and Switzerland, he gained seven years of experience on biodynamic farms and also worked as a lecturer in the German organic and biodynamic agricultural education Freie Ausbildung. He was so impressed by this concept that he decided to bring it to the Czech Republic. Under the auspices of the Association of Local Food Initiatives, he leads several projects dealing with organic and biodynamic education and Czech-German cooperation. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Demeter CS, which supports and develops biodynamic farming in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.