Passion and challenges of vegetable farming
The BASF Agricultural Center is a few kilometers south of Ludwigshafen in the Rhine valley, nestled in between the Palatinate forest and the Odenwald.
People here lovingly call it the Tuscany of Germany because of the mild weather, abundance of sunshine, beautiful vineyards and great cuisine. What few people know is that this stretch of land is also Germany’s vegetable hub. Salad, tomatoes, cauliflower, radishes, white asparagus and much more grows here.
Rose and Hermann Reber are farmers in this region. They grow lettuce, cauliflower and kohlrabi on almost 100 hectares of land in the small town of Ruchheim. I talked to Rose and Hermann about their passion for farming, their challenges and their hopes for the future.
Rose left her family’s dairy farm in Northern Germany to join Hermann. The two of them took over his family’s vegetable farm. Asked what motivates her, she answers without hesitation: “It’s the independence. You are your own boss. It’s being outside and doing something that gives you pleasure.” Rose enjoys the work, even the long hours and weekends that come with the growing season. For Hermann, it’s even simpler: “Once a farmer, always a farmer. There was never a doubt that we would take over my parent’s farm.” Now, 30 years later, the Rebers say they have never regretted their decision, despite the challenges.
In the BASF Farm Perspectives Study consumers said food retailers were putting the most pressure on growers. Asked about food chain pressure, Rose said their biggest concern was the just-in-time delivery system. That means that farmers such as Rose and Hermann plant vegetables at the beginning of the season with no advance orders. Rather than ordering, say, 10 palettes a day, wholesalers will call in the morning and order three palettes for afternoon delivery. “We order our young plants in November. We don’t have any orders, sales figures, nothing at all. We plant in the spring and wait for the big wholesalers to call. It’s a matter of luck. A few years back this was different,” says Rose.
Specialization has allowed the Rebers to fulfill the strict quality standards of the food retailers. Take salad: It has to be visually perfect, clean and meet the various residue limits. Rose Reber points to the heads of lettuce still lying in the field. “They are fine to eat, but they don’t look perfect. So we will plow them under.” Asked how consumers can support farmers, Hermann answers: “I’d like to see more people buy local produce when it’s in season: lettuce when there’s lettuce, radishes when there are radishes.” In return, the Rebers say they offer consumers top quality produce farmed in a sustainable way. For Hermann Reber, sustainability means producing high-quality, safe food using the principles of integrated farming.
What about the future of the farm? Rose says she can imagine her younger son taking over some day, “but not yet, he doesn’t have the right partner.” Farming, she stresses, only works as a family business: “the cheapest labor and always available, personally and around the clock.”