By Tom Collins
EAST GERMANY — An Ontario dairy farm family who moved to Germany 12 years ago says farmers there are split 50-50 on support for supply management despite the program being cancelled there four years ago.
Originally from Holland, Gerard Lansink and his wife, Ivonne, always wanted to move to Germany, and believed there was a good opportunity after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 when farms were cheap. However, the farms were also run down and had too many employees. The family was concerned about the reception they would receive if they bought a farm, modernized it and laid off most of the workers.
So the Lansinks put their German plans on hold and moved to Ontario in the mid-1990s, purchasing a tie-stall dairy farm on Perth Line 33 at Stratford. Within two years, they built a new barn with one of the first Westfalia Surge parlours in Canada. Ten years later, they had grown the herd from 50 cows to 170.
By then, German agriculture had changed. Many of the farms were modernized and the layoffs had already occurred. So, in 2006, the Lansinks moved back across the Atlantic and bought a 350-herd dairy farm. They have since built a new barn with 16 Lely robotic milkers that now milk 950 cows — one of the largest farms in what is former East Germany — with each cow averaging 38 litres per day. The average herd in East Germany in 2015 was 187 cows, while in West German farms averaged 50. Germany is the largest milk producer in the European Union, and 27 per cent of all German farms have dairy cows.
The German milk market has been rocky the last few years as Europe disbanded supply management in 2014. At the same time, Germany was the largest supplier of milk to Russia, and that market crashed, as did the China market.
“Our milk prices went way down,” said Guus, Gerard and Ivonne’s son. The farmers figured their cost of production was about 30 cents per litre. The first month after supply management was cancelled, milk prices dropped to 27 cents and eventually fell to 20 cents. It took two years until the market recovered. Prices are now above the cost of production.
Guus said the key is to make sure you’re always communicating with your bank and suppliers.
“You stay good friends with the bank and they trust you and they see the other years, you’ve always done a good job and you’ve always made money,” he said. “You have to be honest in hard times. If you’re going to just not pay and not talk to anybody, they’re going to get mad.”
Germans have mixed feelings about supply management.
“Without the quota, you can expand a lot cheaper and quicker,” he said. “But if you’re happy with what you have, and if you’re happy with the money you’re making, the quota system is the safer side.”
Excluding supply management, Guus said the biggest difference between Ontario and Germany lies in the number of rules and regulations. “They’re a lot stricter here,” he said. “Even though I talk to my Canadian buddies and farmers there and they’re all complaining, it’s not as bad as it is here.”
Farmers in Germany are not allowed to drive tractors or equipment that are wider than 3.5 metres on the road without a permit. There’s also a 40-tonne weight limit for tractors on the road.
One of the reasons for the stricter regulations is that German farmers have traded away some freedoms for subsidies. Germany can force farmers to do things in exchange for subsidies that keep food costs low, he said.
“They can just tell you, this year, ‘this law has changed. You guys have to do it the new way or you don’t get your subsidies, or not as much,’ ” said Guus. All farmers are subsidized based on the size of the farm. The Lansinks receive about €380,000 (CDN $560,000) for their 1,500 hectares (about CDN $150 per acre). The bigger the farm, the lower the subsidy per acre.
There are no subsidies on cows, but farmers can get money for building dairy barns as long as the barn has fewer than 500 cows. If a farm has 1,000 cows, farmers “will just build two barns of 500 cows so they can get subsidies on both barns,” explained Guus. “They’ll split up the company. One barn will be owned by the wife. The other barn will be owned by the husband.”
Or you can forgo the rules, but that means forgoing the subsidy. The Lansinks didn’t receive any subsidies for their 1,000-cow barn because they didn’t want to abide by the extra rules and regulations. “We didn’t want to do that,” said Guus. “We built it how we wanted to build our barn, not how the European Union wanted us to build it. I’m more of a guy who says I don’t want to live with taxpayer money to sustain myself. I’d rather have a better price and not rely on the European Union and their taxpayers to sustain my business.”