Monday, May 19, 2014

Exploring Farms Across Europe
Written by Todd Price for the Wagner Tales Spring 2014 Issue

In mid-March, I got the chance to take part in the capstone to my two-year Agricultural Leadership class through IALF. The goal of the international seminar was to broaden our perspectives and expose the class to international economic, political and social systems. The highlight for me was actually getting to spend time on the farms and talk to German and Polish farmers. It ends up that the issues we face aren’t so different, despite the distance between our farms. One of our class members, Luke McKelvie wrote the following account as a way for us to always remember the trip.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
- Mark Twain

On March 8, the IALP Class of 2014 departed on its International Study Seminar.

The initial itinerary established earlier this year was noteworthy: the seminar would start in Russia – a first for an IALP class, then continue to Ukraine and ultimately conclude their seminar in Poland. Geopolitical events conspired to alter that plan.

Less than two weeks prior to departure, uprisings in Kiev followed by the Russian incursion into Crimea forced a revamping of the seminar. After months of planning, it would have been understandable – albeit disappointing – if the trip were canceled or postponed. Instead the IALF staff, with the cooperation of dedicated alumni and class members, succeeded in putting an alternate agenda in place that rivaled the original. Final destinations:  Wiesbaden and Berlin, Germany, followed by Warsaw and Krakow, Poland.
As we learned, exactly where we went was far less important than that we went.

Professional Insights
From our first farm visit in Germany (the swine farm of Hofgut Seeger) to the last farm visit in Poland (potato farmer Waldemar Adamczyk), one lesson was immediately clear: farmers everywhere – whether in the midwestern United States or on the eastern border of Europe – share common values and beliefs that propel them forward.

These values were evident in the well-spoken, well-informed, shrewd businessmen and women we were privileged to meet. We found people who:

  • Are dedicated to raising the feed crops, food crops, fuel crops and livestock needed by a hungry world. 
  • Are concerned about activists who target their livelihood. Are independent minded – not wanting to rely on government support, but grateful it is there when needed.
  • Are welcoming to guests and accommodating to strangers.
  • Want to leave something to their children.
  • Want to take care of their parents and grandparents who farmed before them.
  • These are themes that resonate with us from across the Atlantic, no doubt.
After leaving each farm, group chatter would immediately center around these commonalities. “They’re just like us. We’re just like them.”

However, for all the bonds that bring us together, one difference was startlingly evident:  When your livelihood depends disproportionately on what’s happening in 27 other European countries, as well as North and South America, you have a broader global view of the agricultural landscape. It’s mandatory if you’re going to be successful. And although exports are important for U.S. agriculture, we’ve had the luxury of operating within our own domestic cocoon of policy and markets without having to be completely preoccupied with what’s happening elsewhere.

The class quickly concluded that we would all be better served to learn from our European counterparts and be more aware of the gyrations shaping global consumption so that we’re ready to address them. And we’re each determined to do so.

Cultural Insights
With histories that spans more than five times that of the United States, Europe and the countries that comprise it have an altogether different perspective on the passage of time and historical events. The collision – and overlap – of ancient cultures, boundaries and belief systems made for a fascinating cultural study for our class. We found ourselves…

  • Walking the ruins of an 11th century castle.
  • Staring at the sarcophagus of a 13th century Polish king.
  • Gathering in a 15th century town square.
  • Touring an ancient wine cellar, wondering how that bottle from 1643 would taste.
  • Walking the border of the Berlin Wall, pondering how it would feel to be mere feet away from freedom.
  • Overlooking the German parliament building and marveling at how far democratization and reunification have come
  • Standing amid the ruins of Auschwitz, trying to comprehend how 1.5 million human beings could be so brutally murdered in one place.

For cultural and historical eye-opening, it would be difficult to find better areas of study than Germany and Poland – two countries at the center of multiple wars and the fall of Communism.

It was incredibly humbling to stand in places where the path of mankind has so often been determined. To stand where it could have easily changed course for worse or better. Places where a small group of people determined how easy or difficult life would become for millions of others. Where men, women and children were loaded by the hundreds onto cattle cars so they could be exterminated. Where men decided whether or not to keep up a wall that suppressed human dignity…or tear it down.

The U.S. has a proud history of standing up and lending aid to the cause of freedom. But it is so rarely applied within our own borders.  To be in the places where those efforts were actually realized and brought to fruition was inspiring. And humbling. And often chilling.

And of course, every evening spent interacting with locals provided learning and outreach opportunities that bolstered our knowledge and understanding.

It was a life-changing and awe-inspiring seminar.

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”
- David Mitchell

See the full Wagner Tales Spring 2014 issue.