Pricey food Why local farmers are not getting rich despite the grain shortage

Swisttal-Hohn · The war in Ukraine has made grain increasingly scarce on the world market. A farmer from Swisttal explains why German farmers are still not making record profits.

  Johannes Brünker grows grain on his farm in Swisttal. The current crises are challenging. Hopes of higher sales prices do little to ease the situation.

Johannes Brünker grows grain on his farm in Swisttal. The current crises are challenging. Hopes of higher sales prices do little to ease the situation.

Foto: Alexander C. Barth

The soil under the ears of grain grown by Johannes Brünker is hard and dry. The farmer from Swisttal-Hohn hopes that the currently knee-high crop of wheat will nonetheless produce a good harvest. "Heat is particularly stressful for cereal crops," he says, commenting on the weather forecasts, which sometimes mention temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius for the next few days. Depending on the intensity, heavy rain can also cause damage or lead to a total failure of the crop.That would be particularly painful for cereal farmers like Johannes Brünker this year. "We have already had a few bad years," explains the chairman of the Bonn Rhein/Sieg District Farmers' Association, pointing to this year's drought as the main cause. Rising energy prices and government regulations have also been putting farmers under pressure for some time. The grain shortage on the global market that was caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its peak in May. Which might lead us to believe that producers of wheat and barley are in for a good year.

The market price can change daily

"Unfortunately, it is not that simple. In fact, wheat prices are already falling again," says Johannes Brünker. And that can quickly change: "It’s a mood based market," he says with a shrug. Since grain can be stored for a long time, at least farmers can wait for a good time to sell. But even that sounds easier than it actually is, says Brünker: "I have to pay fees to the cooperative for storage, I have to factor that in."

Even if everything goes well, he will not be a rich man at the end of the year, says the Swisttaler. "If I'm lucky, I can offset the high costs for mineral fertiliser and energy," is his modest hope. The price of fertiliser has been shooting up for some time, but the Ukraine war has accelerated the trend. At the same time, diesel fuel, which is needed on the farm for vehicles and machinery, has become a precious commodity.

Possibly buying stocks of gas in good time

"We are also considering storing up gas before the tap is turned off. That is worrying us a lot," says the agricultural economist, looking ahead to the coming months. Normally, he tries to protect himself and his family against risks by planning ahead. For example, he sells part of his crop in advance at a fixed price, and the Hohn Farm has long become independent of arable farming as its only source of income. Horse stables and equestrian facilities for hire are an additional source of income that brings a special benefit, Johannes Brünker finds: "You're still in control of things yourself."

He is referring to the high reliance on state subsidies, without which organic farmers in particular would not be able to exist. "My son and I think about switching to organic practically every year," Johannes Brünker reveals. So far, however, the decision has always been clearly in favour of conventional farming methods. "The pure organic route doesn't work for us." Nevertheless, sustainable cultivation is important to him. If it were just a question of money, he would only grow wheat and rapeseed, but instead he plants half a dozen different crops in rotation, including sugar beet and peas.

Farmers see themselves forced into unfair competition

The aim is to increase and maintain the quality of the soil. Growing the same type of plant over and over again in a field leads to poor crops in the long run. This is not only about the nutrient content, but also about the root penetration of the soil and the network of mycorrhiza fungi. "This is a complex issue," adds the Swisttaler, who is in regular contact with his colleagues in the sector on such matters. "The majority of farmers already think sustainably," he says, but many feel they are being treated unfairly. "We feel more and more pushed into unequal competition," he says, referring to the legal requirements for agricultural production methods that make it "virtually impossible" to compete with suppliers from abroad.

Disappointed by politicians

In principle, Johannes Brünker shows an understanding for the need for structural change in agriculture: "We have to change, there's no question about that. What is disappointing, however, is that despite many promises by politicians to provide better support for farmers, not much has changed since the time before the Bundestag elections.

(Original text: Alexander C. Barth; Translation: Jean Lennox)