Snow is falling as the plane touches down at Munich airport. By the time we arrive in Hermannsdorf, an hour’s drive, the forests and rolling hills of the Upper Bavarian countryside are pillowed in a few inches of white powder. My wife, Quincey, and I are on a mid-winter European junket. We’ve tagged along with her father, Doug Tompkins, to visit the farm of Karl-Ludwig Schweisfurth, one of Germany’s (and the world’s) leaders in the sustainable food movement.
We start our tour at the Schweisfurth home, a delightful cottage decorated with all manner of livestock-inspired artwork. Karl-Ludwig is a tall, solid-boned, man with a mane of white hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. Now in his mid-80s, Karl-Ludwig grew the family business, Herta, into one of Europe’s largest meat processing corporations. He even based its expanding production lines on Oscar Mayer assembly operations, where his father sent him as a young man to study American innovation. “I am a butcher,” he says, deprecatingly, acknowledging the role and trade that life have given him.
After three decades in the meat packing business, however, Schweisfurth realized that the perpetual need for growth and ever-increasing disassembly line speeds came at too high a cost. He saw animal welfare, work conditions, health of the environment, food quality, and personal values plummeting as humans became further and further disconnected from the basic tasks of food production. In 1984, at age 54, he sold the business to start over again with his two sons. His career as a butcher wasn’t at an end. Rather, it became one skill among a larger set that requires farming, animal husbandry, meat processing, and retailing. The revamped family business soon included an inn, organic farm, restaurant, brewery, and bakery. It became a hub for local employment and the purchase of regionally produced organic grains and other ingredients.
Around his kitchen table, Karl Ludwig explains his concept of “symbiotic agriculture.” For more than two decades, he has been experimenting with raising different species of livestock on the same pastures using various mobile structures. The pigs protect the chickens from predators. The chickens eat parasites that might potentially sicken the pigs. The free ranging animals’ manure returns vital nutrients to the soil as they graze. Hundreds of acres of fields and livestock pastures at the farm, officially called “HermannsdorferLandwerkstätten,” are planted with various crops that provide forage for the animals or feed that can be stored for the winter. The farm’s workers are always striving for the best rotations of pasture crops to prevent pests from becoming too established, maintain healthy soil, and keep meat flavor as high as possible. On the kitchen table is a wooden model of a mobile group housing structure. I take off the wooden roof to inspect. The pigs’ quarters are downstairs. Poultry enter around the back and roost upstairs.
Finally it’s time to walk. We find plenty of animals out on the snowy landscape. Bavarian-styled chicken tractors house birds for both meat and eggs, active out in the cold winter day. Pigs are kept in permanent barns, as well as in smaller groups with simple wooden structures out in the fields. The barns have roomy outside stalls full of straw and covered internal stalls for feeding and weather protection. Families are raised together for their entire lives to honor the social hierarchies they develop at birth. Karl Ludwig delights in explaining the natural conditions in which the animals are raised. Below the barn, he points to a methane digester, a covered circular tank about the size of a yurt. There animal waste from the pig barns is processed. It generates electricity from captured methane gas. Compost for the farming operation is made from the remaining solid waste.
When we enter the slaughter plant, Karl Ludwig describes it as “the best plant I have ever designed.” It is white tiled, very clean. Chain mesh gloves and white aprons hang in orderly fashion. The animals are raised right on the farm and are moved to holding pens close by prior to slaughter. There is no long distance transportation involved that heightens stress in animals. The slaughter room and butchering operation are completely separated, he explains, so that no animal has a sense of imminent death. “I realize that in order to process animals I must kill them,” he says. “So I want to make both their lives and their deaths as compassionate as possible.” On a given week, 100 pigs, 20 bulls, and 100 sheep are killed, butchered and begin the curing and processing stage.
We tour a curing facility, a hall with a series of brick-lined rooms where meats are aged. The smell is sweet, sour and pungent. One room is filled with hanging hams that seem to be the German equivalent of Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano. Another room contains many racks of salamis. The air is peppery. The rooms have been cleverly designed using the thermal mass of the hill that the building abuts to provide optimum humidity and temperature controls with the least amount of energy.
In a processing kitchen we find large mixing machines for making sausages. Each stainless steel bowl could easily hold a person. Two ovens are presently occupied in the smoke curing of pork bellies. We see Karl-Ludwig’s guidance everywhere. The organizing principle, from start to finish is quality: for animals, workers, the environment, and eaters.
At last, we sit down to break bread. It is no wonder that the operation at Hermannsdorf is a popular tourist destination, with its beautiful restaurant and modern organic grocery. Karl-Ludwig’s family joins us at the table, a wide open floor plan with high ceilings and exposed wooden rafters, reclaimed from the former building, which was a mill. In addition to the restaurant they have a micro-brewery and a bakery. Both use ingredients from the farm and purchase grains, hops, and malt from regional farmers. We taste a goat cheese appetizer that is light, tangy and creamy. Spread on chewy dark German bread, it combines perfectly with a stein of the family Schwinebrau brown ale. This is followed by sautéd fennel and leeks, a crispy potato pancake, and a roast of veal that is shimmery and pink with a clean robust flavor. A lager beer, the paler brother of the ale, accompanies this main course. Karl-Ludwig carves the meat from his seat at the head of the table, generously passing samples to customers at the next table.
At the meal’s end, we present Karl Ludwig with a copy of the photo book, CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, that Doug Tompkins (Foundation for Deep Ecology) and I (Watershed Media) co-produced. He looks at the grisly photo on the front cover. It’s a dark scene inside an industrial hog facility. He points to me, shakes his head and with sad eyes asks, “You made this book?” I nod my head yes. “I finally decided to get out of the industrial meat business when I went inside one of these,” he says. He begins flipping through the large photographs of animal processing, waste lagoons, feedlots, and then puts it aside, knowing all too viscerally the heavy content featured in the book.
We have landed in one of the epicenters of the global healthy food movement. It’s a social current that is slowly sweeping the entire planet. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other places where science, art, land stewardship and food production combine at such profound levels. I see as this as our modern renaissance. Hermannsdorf is on the scale of the Prince of Wales’ efforts at the Duchy Home Farm in the English Cottswalds, Doug Tompkins’ pioneering farmscaping at Laguna Blanca in Argentina, and Wes Jackson’s visionary perennial polyculture at the Land Institute in Kansas.
Karl Ludwig is convinced that this approach to sustainably produced meat and grains—“symbiotic agriculture”—is not just a wealthy man’s hobby, not just a passing fad. It is the future that agriculture must somehow become. His son calls it “retro innovation,” the combination of land management and husbandry practices of the pre-petrochemical and pre-animal antibiotic past, with the understanding of ecological systems and small-scale agricultural technology of today. This is information rich, systems thinking: finding ways for the farming to fit the land, and for the land to feed the animals.
A day’s visit is not enough. We need more time to explore. I have dozens more questions. But we must be on the road to our next destination, and leave, having tasted, experienced, and fully sensed Hermannsdorf, a lighthouse to the world of food and farming.