January 17, 2007
It's been 18 years since the Berlin wall came crashing down, and in parts of Eastern Germany, the economic depression still lingers on. Even so, rural villagers led by enterprising farmers like Andreas Tornow are fighting for prosperity and the chance to add value to their communities.
I traveled to Germany earlier this week to cover GreenWeek, one of Europe's oldest and largest food and agricultural shows here in Berlin. But before that exhibition began I wanted to visit with some farmers who were participating in the great biofuel rampup going on here. Here, the raw commodity fueling that energy comes from rapeseed, nearly identical to the more common U.S. oil crop we call canola.
I landed in Berlin's Tegel airport and the next morning was greeted by my guide and translator Martin Ramm, who took time off from his freelance marketing job to act as my driving companion and interpreter. We headed north from Berlin on a bitterly cold morning, through small quiet villages. Our destination was a tiny spot on the map called Varchentin, in the scenic state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, an historic region popular for hunting and fishing for Erich Honecker, former president of the GDR.
Tornow (below) grew up behind the iron curtain and only dreamed about what capitalism might be like before 1989 opened the flood gates to privatization and economic opportunities. I had heard about Andreas from a German journalist, who recommended an interview. I had exchanged emails with him, but his broken english made me wonder if the interview might be difficult. Martin, who speaks fluent English along with his native German, was ready.
We found Tornow at his farm next to a 13th century church built from brick and board, not far from a broken down castle being renovated into a hotel. As Martin and I hurried from the car, a window flew open. "Willkommen Mr. Wilson!bCrLf I heard a man shout. It was Tornow, welcoming us to his home.
Turning point Andreas had been one of many farmers working on a 16,000-acre state collective farm before the fall of the Soviet Union. He was able to gain control of about 3,675 acres after Germany reunited, and spent most of the 1990s building the farm's production. But things were bleak, with 60% unemployment, no industry and falling grain prices. He and the other villagers took stock and realized thousands of euros were being spent on fuel that could be produced right there in Varchentin.
It was then we realized, everything we buy or sell goes or comes from elsewhere,bCrLf says Tornow. "This was a starting point. We realized we could produce both food and energy, and we could keep that value here in the community.bCrLf
Tornow replaced the heating oil in his home with a wood burning furnace that fires a boiler to heat the house and farm buildings. Instead of the heating oil shipped in from outside the community, he uses wood from his own timber. Next, he set about a way to use his own farm's production to run the farm's tractors and equipment. He had already set up his car to run on pure plant oil, so he decided to convert all his tractors as well. He invested $250,000 in a plant oil mill to crush rapeseed for meal and oil,
Today Andreas and his son, Christoph (photo right), use 150,000 litres (39,600 gal.) of rapeseed oil from their own crop to run farm equipment. The rest — about 500,000 litres (132,000 gal.) — is sold for fuel to be made into biodiesel, and food oil. The family opened a small restaurant. grocery and slaughter house behind their home to take advantage of livestock production — and keep the value close at home.
"Jobs were created from this,bCrLf Andreas says. "They are simple ones, but they make money, and we save money. Best of all, it's good for the community and the money stays here in the community.
"Everything is about globalization now, but what we are doing is based on decentralization,bCrLf he says. "My dream is to grow it here and use it here.bCrLf
Tomorrow I'll tell you how Tornow made the decision to grow, process and use his own crop for fuel, and his vision for other farmers to add value in their own communities.
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