Intolerable Stench Confronting the Threat of Industrial Pig Farms
Tourists are increasingly discovering the rural charms of northern Germany. But with industrial pig breeding operations moving in, that charm may soon be destroyed by the stench of swine slurry. Locals are up in arms -- but factory farming may be the region's last chance to create jobs.
Jörg Kröger is a quiet, thoughtful man. He becomes especially quiet when he talks about the discovery he made 10 years ago, when he and his wife were lying on a meadow for the first time on the grounds of the Wietzow manor house. "There wasn't a human being far and wide, just fresh air and peace and quiet." The Krögers fell in love with the idyllic place, signed a lease and moved from the northern German city of Lübeck to the run-down manor house, which they then renovated.
They now live on the income from five holiday rentals on the estate. They have invested money, created jobs and are bringing tourists to the sparsely populated region in a rural area of the island of Usedom. But when Kröger, 57, gazes across the park from his patio today, it only makes him angry. The fresh air and peace and quiet "are now a thing of the past here," he says.
Europe's largest pig-breeding farm is currently being built near Wietzow, between the villages of Alt Tellin and Neu Plötz. When the farm goes into operation, about 10,000 breeding sows will be living there in crowded conditions, producing at least 250,000 piglets a year and tons of stinking slurry.
The stench hasn't arrived yet, but the facility is already ruining the climate in the region. Supporters and opponents are locked in bitter feuds in the supporting villages. Their dispute revolves around the question of what is more beneficial to the local economy, tourists or pigs? It is a conflict of interests that extends far beyond Alt Tellin and New Plötz, because it involves structural change in rural communities, as well as businesspeople, equipped with millions in subsidized investments and political support, who are displacing the agriculture economy.
The trail of pigs runs from the Netherlands all the way across Germany. Citizens' initiatives from Stocksee on the northern Holstein region ("We citizens think it stinks!") to Bad Dürrheim in the Black Forest are mobilizing against modern factory farms, the stench they produce and the methods they employ. The problems of factory farming and the large-scale use of antibiotics are also becoming an issue in Berlin once again. Last Tuesday, 500 scientists submitted a petition against factory farms to the federal government. A mass demonstration has been scheduled to follow this weekend's International Green Week, the world's largest agricultural fair, in Berlin. Jörg Kröger will be there to protest the business model of men like Adriaan Straathof.
Straathof, one of Europe's biggest pig breeders, began factory farming in his native Netherlands. When protests there became too burdensome, he expanded to the northeastern German state of Saxony-Anwalt, but opposition also grew quickly there. Now he has reached the far northeastern corner of Germany, in Western Pomerania, an area that was known for its pig farms when it was part of East Germany, and that discovered sustainable tourism after reunification. Straathof wants to invest 20 million ($26 million) in the region.
There is a showdown once a week, when opponents of the planned operation, members of a citizens' initiative called "Save the Rural Lifestyle in the Tollense Valley," meet for their "Monday Inspection" in front of the future pig farm. The facility is guarded like a high-security prison, complete with barking dogs and tall earthen walls to prevent outsiders from getting a clear view of the construction site.
But the other side is also making its voice heard. Supporters of the pig farm slow down their cars as they drive past, roll down their windows, give the anti-pig protesters the finger and shout threateningly: "You're the pigs." Police units are now posted between the opposing groups every Monday.
Upset Patrons in the Storchenbar
The opponents are mainly newcomers, people from Western Germany who arrived after 1989, armed with money and ideas, to settle in the depopulated region. Now they are at odds with the long-time residents, who see the pig-breeding operation as possibly their last chance to find a job.
One building has already burned down. It belonged to a farm that had sold its land to the Dutch investor. Another local resident received a nighttime visit from two young men who smashed his garden gate and threatened him. He had previously voted against the pig factory in the town council.
Frank Karstädt would prefer not to talk about the issue at all anymore. He is the mayor and innkeeper of Alt Tellin, and the pros and cons of pig breeding are often discussed at the bar in his establishment, the Storchenbar. His patrons are upset, partly because the bar itself was already the target of an attack, when unknown perpetrators smashed some of the windows.
Karstädt believes that the area cannot survive on tourism alone. He hopes that the pig-breeding operation will generate tax revenue for his community and 30 to 40 jobs. "There have always been pigs in the area," he says, adding that, with an unemployment rate of 17 percent in the region, every job counts.
Not everyone in the village agrees. When a survey list was posted at the Storchenbar, 60 percent of respondents indicated opposition to the pig operation. Nevertheless, the supporters prevailed in the town council, with five members voting for the facility and four against it.
In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, tourism has long outpaced agriculture as a generator of jobs. Structural change has become unstoppable, even in the area around Alt Tellin. In 2010, the Western Pomeranian river landscape, including the Tollense Valley, won the Eden Award initiated by the European Commission, which draws attention to "Destinations of Excellence."
Helmut Klüter, a geography professor at the University of Greifswald, has been observing change in northeastern Germany for years. "Sustainable tourism could support a lot more people here," he says. But only if it paired with sustainable agriculture, he adds, with the kind of traditional pig farming that would fit into the idyllic rural settings depicted in tourism brochures.
What is happening in the northeast, says Klüter, "has to be called a catastrophe." He is referring to the large, streamlined farming operations that employ only small numbers of people. There are only 4,700 agricultural businesses left in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, employing 26,000 people. In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the total amount of agricultural land is only slightly larger, there are 36,000 businesses and 124,000 employees.
In an area where lakes, forests and fields ought to be attracting vacationers, "dead zones" are being created, Klüter says critically. Factory farms, he adds, destroy the balance among humans, animals and the plant world.
Although Europe's pork market is actually saturated, this development continues. Small farms are disappearing. In the last 10 years, 81,000 of 141,000 pig farmers in Germany have gone out of business. The trend is moving toward fewer and larger feed lots, and Adriaan Straathof was one of the first to recognize the trend.
In the mid-1990s, he expanded his farm in the Dutch town of Buren into a high-performance operation with 14,000 pigs at first. The neighbors soon began complaining about the intolerable stench. The town took Straathof to court, and eventually pigs were removed from his farm because there were more animals there than allowed. But the case didn't end there. Because factory farming had led to problems nationwide, the Dutch government enacted stricter environment protection and animal welfare standards.
Straathof moved his operations to Germany, a land of unlimited possibilities for pig breeders, because it has fewer restrictions. He went to Saxony-Anhalt first, where he bought land and buildings to house several thousand animals. He did run into difficulties, partly for erecting buildings without permits, but the pig production operation was not stopped. Straathof declines to comment on any of this.
Residents in Western Pomerania will also have a hard time blocking the construction of the large pig-breeding operation. It's a fate that country gentlemen Kröger refuses to accept.
He and his allies arrived at a "Monday Inspection" on his tractor. They raised the shovel loader and took pictures of the construction site across the earthen wall. "It's all totally oversized," says Kröger. But at least his citizens' initiative has managed to gain some time. Because of a missing permit, local authorities imposed a partial construction freeze on the project.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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