By Donella Meadows
–September 18, 1997–
I have just visited two farms in Europe, both of which claim to demonstrate the future of agriculture — though they are about as different as two farms could be.
Babolna, in northwest Hungary, covers 60,000 acres in the flat, fertile Danube basin. Established in 1789 by Emperor Jozsef II, Babolna became famous for its Arabian horses, bred for show and war. Nothing was too good for these royal horses. Babolna’s stables look like palaces.
World War II ended the use of horses in war and brought communism to Hungary. Babolna became a state farm. Instead of oats for horses, the land grew corn and barley for chickens and pigs. Modern methods were introduced — chemical fertilizers and pesticides, mass production of animals in tight confinement.
Visiting dignitaries were brought to Babolna to see the triumph of central planning. The farm turned out 30 million chickens a year, bred to be ready for slaughter in 49 days. Planes loaded with newly hatched chicks took off weekly for Moscow. Piglets were delivered by Caesarean section and rushed to sterile nurseries while their mothers were turned into sausage. Tens of thousands of acres of corn supplied the feed mill. (And fertilizer and pesticides contaminated the local wells, but the visiting dignitaries couldn’t see that.)
After the sudden switch to capitalism in 1990, the Hungarian government turned Babolna into a joint stock company. Shares will soon be offered on the market, with the government retaining majority control. In preparation for entry into the European Union, Babolna’s managers already comply with EU standards, which means no hormones or antibiotics in animal feed and no genetically engineered plants or animals. Manure and waste from the feeding and slaughtering operations are cooked into a pelleted fertilizer that is returned to the fields.
Babolna now turns out 60 million chickens a year. It employs 6500 people directly, and thousands more indirectly and licenses its corn production system to farms covering 1.5 million acres — 13% of Hungary’s arable land. Babolna provides seed, chemicals and equipment and buys back grain for its feed mills. It licenses chicken production the same way, providing chicks, feed, and buildings, buying back broilers for its slaughterhouses. Joint ventures with Western companies include veterinary product, disinfectant, insecticide, ventilator, and trading companies, and Babolna now provides chicken to McDonald’s for Eastern Europe’s McNuggets. Jets loaded with Babolna baby chicks and frozen meat now head not only to Russia, but to Saudi Arabia, South America and soon, say company planners, the whole world.
The future of agriculture according to Babolna is fast and frozen food, produced by highly industrial methods and integrated on a global scale. To which Karl Ludwig Schweisfurth would react with the German equivalent of “been there; done that.”
In the 1950s, Schweisfurth’s father, a local butcher, sent young Karl Ludwig to America to see the future of meat production. He saw it and came back to create the biggest, most automated meat-packing enterprise in Western Europe.
Then he had an epiphany, which he attributes partly to his skeptical children, and partly to a period of fasting and meditation. He saw that his operation was taking the life and health out of food. He saw land abused, chemicals accumulating, animals raised inhumanely, wastes piling up, long transport lines consuming energy, and packaged, processed, adulterated foods reaching consumers days, weeks, or months after they had been part of living plants or animals.
He sold his business and used the money to set up the Schweisfurth Foundation in Munich, which supports organic agriculture, and Hermannsdorf, a farm to demonstrate his vision: “food from the region for the region.”
Hermannsdorf, in the rolling countryside near Munich, grows a few hundred acres of wheat, rye, barley, maize, and hay, and 12 acres of vegetables and fruits, all organically. Pigs and cattle are raised in small groups in facilities that let them go indoors or out, moving and behaving like normal animals. Their feed is organically raised. Manure goes into a biogas digester that provides roughly 20% of Hermannsdorf’s heat and electricity and all the fertilizer for the fields.
The heart of Hermannsdorf is the huge old Bavarian barn that has been retrofitted into a processing center. In this building is a bakery that turns fresh-ground whole grains into wood-oven-baked sourdough breads. A micro-brewery buys organic barley and hops from 30 neighboring farms and turns it into an amazingly delicious beer. A cheesery buys milk from six organic dairy farmers and makes Parmesan, Camembert, Emmentaler, cream cheese, and buttermilk, all without pasteurization. (Karl Ludwig believes that high temperatures take the life out of the milk.) Schweisfurth’s pride is the immaculate slaughterhouse, which turns 20 hogs, 3 beef cattle, 8 calves, and 10 sheep a week into fresh meat, smoked hams, and many kinds of sausage.
This food is sold at the peak of freshness through a restaurant and store at Hermannsdorf and eight stores in Munich. Hermannsdorf employs about 100 people, 60 of them full time. It turns out enough food for about 10,000 people, and Schweisfurth does not intend to make it bigger. He doesn’t believe quality or freshness can be maintained with a larger operation. Rather, he is figuring out how to create a network of Hermannsdorfs, each buying organic produce and supplying meats and cheeses and beers and breads over a distance of no more than 20 miles in any direction.
Pondering the contrast between Babolna and Hermannsdorf, I got on a Swissair jet to return home and found bright sunflowers plastered over the interior walls and a new advertising message: “The first airline serving naturally grown food.” Starting with a few items on flights out of Switzerland, Swissair intends to phase in organic products for all foods on all routes by April 1999. (It will be a logistic tour de force, if that schedule is actually met.)
As far as I know, Swissair has no connection with Karl Ludwig Schweisfurth. But it has made its own choice of farming futures. Said the sunflower-bedecked brochure on the tray with my (excellent) lunch, “Organically produced food is more wholesome. It also tastes better. And you’ll feel better, knowing you’ve done something good for your health and fitness.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997