Christian Vieth enables small and medium sized farms in Germany to realize their potential as creators of innovative smallholder agriculture through promoting and supporting extra familial hand-over of farms. Christian engages young agriculture entrepreneurs, established farmers, the academic world, and the wider public to build community impelled to drive this change.
The New Idea
In Germany and beyond, small and midsized farms serve an essential role for biodiversity, organic food production, landscape management, economic stability of rural areas, and social integration of retired farmers. However, 70 percent of Germany’s 300,000 (mostly small) farms do not have a successor within their families. Currently, up to 10,000 small and midsized farms close per year, although many of them could provide decent income for one to two families. This shows that the underlying reasons are not economic but cultural, social, and educational.
Christian, a business graduate and agricultural scientist, understands the complex set of issues lying beneath the handover issue and confronts it in a holistic and innovative way: he wants to change the paradigm of how farm succession works. Because he is well connected to institutions educating young people for careers in farming and agriculture, he can shape a future perspective on entrepreneurship in agriculture for an interested young generation. He also consults and educates farmers about the possibilities of succession without a family member involved—a revolutionary thought for many of them. Christian offers an online matchmaking platform, the first in Germany, that connects farmers with young agricultural entrepreneurs interested in taking over the daily work on the farm, while also enabling the predecessors to stay at the farm with a secure pension. Christian then takes these individuals through the process of taking over, educating and training them to understand their financial and legal options in a small farm takeover.
Christian scales his model by training farm-take-over-coaches, as well as further deepening his education, networking, and lobbying efforts. Christian’s methodology serves to successfully promote the positive perspectives an entrepreneurial career in agriculture offers; while it also serves as a model to manage agricultural transition in many other European countries.
In developed countries, the agriculture sector went through a massive structural transformation throughout the last decades. Even though industrialized agriculture seems to dominate the food supply nowadays, the importance of smallholder agriculture remains. From an ecological point of view, small and midsized farms secure biodiversity, enhance organic farming, and preserve the fertility of soils and natural ground water. In addition to that, these farms are an indispensable part of every community in rural areas, providing local and trustworthy food supply, income for families, and social infrastructure, i.e. as a meeting point for local communities. Economically speaking, small and midsized farms bring economic stability to rural areas by diversifying suppliers with a variety of products, and decreasing dependence on large producers focused on single products. More than that, these farms can produce as cost effectively as industrialized agriculture, considering external costs and achievements in nature. The economic, ecological, and social importance of small and midsized farms is also recognized by the EU as an integral focus of its Common Agricultural Policy.
Even though economically healthy, 70 percent of all farmers above 45-years-old (187,000 in total) do not have a secure succession for their farm. Traditionally, a farm is passed on to the farmer’s children, which still is the most known option but often fails because of different career interests of children or conflicts within the family. In addition, many children who took farms over from their parents did so out of obligation, not passion for the field. Other models, like the extra familial hand over Christian proposes, are almost not recognized today. In most cases, a farm is sold and closed down or bought by an industrial agriculture business (roughly 10,000 per year) when no successor is found. The loss of a farm affects the surrounding communities in many respects—individually as well as systematically—resulting in a decline in quality of life, supply of foods, tradition, and cultural life.
On the other hand, students of agriculture sciences (approximately 20,000 in Germany) have a strong interest in starting an agriculture business and/or takeover of a farm; 90 percent of those interested want to farm organically. This is a chance for Germany’s agriculture sector to strengthen innovation and allow the transformation to a competitive, sustainable, cost-effective, and socially responsible agriculture in Germany. The entry into agriculture business is extremely difficult for young entrepreneurs, especially when they do not have a farming family background. Many of them do not have access or the needed capital to takeover an existing farm or start a new one. Also, there are no start-up programs (education, consulting, or process facilitation) for the agricultural sector as there are in other sectors. There is great potential for a modern, organic agricultural system that raises awareness for food production and consumption as well as strengthens rural areas economically and socially, but it needs a movement to bring it about.
Christian creates access to small and midsized agriculture for young people with entrepreneurial spirit, which paves the way for innovation and progress in the sector. He promotes a paradigm and structural shift for small and midsized agriculture in academics, politics, and society—following his guiding thought that, “New farmers is what this country needs.” Each year more than 1,200 economically healthy small and midsized farms can be saved from closure through Christian’s activities.
In 2011 Christian established the first training course outside of a university for professional systemic farm-take-over-coaches. More than sixty people showed interest and applied to the first twelve spots offered. The course lasts one year and will create a new profession in Germany. Christian wants to establish systemic farm-take-over-coaches in every main agricultural area in Germany. They provide information for older farmers and young individuals about extrafamilial hand over, including advice throughout the hand over process. In spring 2013, another sixteen spots were offered and Christian plans to expand the offer due to the high demand.
To increase the number of extrafamilial farm takeovers, he set up a matchmaking platform which connects farmers who want to hand over their farm with young agriculture entrepreneurs. Offering important information and support, this is more than a search and offer database. Most important in this process is not the missing ability to finance a farm takeover, but to open perspectives about different available possibilities. This is where information and support come in. When a farm take-over takes place, two models are usually used: (i) the farm is given to extrafamiliar successors as a gift. This is something possible within family and also to a third party. With the gift comes a contract, in which different things are agreed upon: right of abode for the elder farmers, financial support for the elder farmers, sometimes also certain methods of operations, and the commitment of the successors to care for the elder when they are in the need may be included. (Christian calls this “living the intergenerational contract.”) This model is applied in about 50 percent of the takeovers Christian accompanies. The main motivation is a value-based decision and for farmers to be able to stay on their farm, and see it prosper with a new generation. (ii) Different models of selling and leasing the farm and land are worked out—depending on the size of the farm and the situation of both elder farmer and successor. This usually requires an average of $350 to $400k, which is creatively put together by loans, shareholding, and other means. Christian and his team facilitate how to create the best model.
Currently, Christian accompanies more than sixty takeover processes. (If he reaches a success rate of 90 percent he is happy.) The intensity varies from small consultations to collaborations over years. With his help in all aspects of a farm hand over (legal, economic, and social) more and more farmers are considering an extrafamilial hand solution. This provides them the opportunity to sustain the role their farm plays in their community, pass on their knowledge, and continue living on their farm even if it is operated by a new owner. This also allows older farmers to gently transition their business to young people outside their family interested in agriculture as a career. Christian also strengthens the education for agriculture entrepreneurs in academics. Together with the two main faculties for agricultural sciences in Germany, he created a hands-on seminar about agricultural start-ups and the takeover of farms for students. Christian wants to expand this seminar, with an additional start-up consultancy covering legal, financial, and social aspects for all agricultural faculties in Germany. Christian also makes his knowledge accessible, i.e. through a guide, Founding and Conserving Farms, which is available online.
Christian reaches more than 600 farmers through 25 to 30 seminars and consultations (8,000 to 10,000 visitors a month on Hofgruender.de, 150 to 200 responses from younger farmers to farm adds on the platform, about 15 long [1-1.5h each] and about 100 short (15 to 20 minutes each) consultations a month and about 6 to 8 onsite consultancies a month), as well as 150 to 200 students through his teaching assignments each year. Christian has served as a catalyst for hundreds of successful extrafamilial hand overs and agriculture start-ups throughout the years. Through the set-up of his organization, which Christian is now building, his work will be financially sustainable, ensuring through governance structures that the social mission of his work is upheld.
Christian’s next steps are both to professionalize the system he created and build up a solid infrastructure necessary to scale. Realizing the huge potential for innovative and well-functioning smallholder agriculture through extrafamilial takeover, Christian wants to then tackle structural change on the federal, national, and EU levels in the future, e.g. promoting support for agriculture start-ups as an essential part of development policies and changing the allocation of set-up premiums for young farmers. Christian is also working on a campaign to promote a new and positive reputation of agricultural entrepreneurs in cooperation with one of Germany’s largest retailers to broaden public awareness.
Raised in a family of winegrowers, Christian wanted to become a farmer though his parents did not see a future in a farming career and urged him to choose otherwise. For Christian school was “more of a hobby.” He was active on local farms as well as in youth groups, showing his entrepreneurial spirit early on. After a commercial apprenticeship he enrolled at one of the agriculture faculties in Germany. When something did not work out, Christian found a solution. For example, the university decided not to hand out lecture copies anymore; so Christian convinced fellow students to help him type the lectures and invested in a copy machine to distribute them. With the proceeds from these initial sales, he set up a copy shop that earned even more money for the student association.
During Christian’s studies he quickly recognized that similar to himself, fellow students had great interest in cultivating their own farms after graduation but had little access to information about taking over a farm or starting their own agriculture business. When the only relevant lecture was cancelled, he asked his professor to let him teach it the next semester. Christian realized his ability to teach and motivate others, to understand and meet the needs of his fellow students, and his passion to open the way to agriculture for young entrepreneurs.
Feeling both at home in academics, economics, and agriculture, Christian is a well-known and respected expert. In cooperation with key players in the agriculture sector in Germany, such as the German Federation of Rural Youth and agricultural universities, Christian has published dozens of articles, developed curricula, and initiated seminars which have reached hundreds of students, farmers, and politicians. Christian lectures at the two main faculties for agriculture in Germany which are filled with examples of young agriculture entrepreneurs who made their way with the support of Hofgründer.de.
With his analytical skills, Christian understands the political frameworks which need to be changed for a multifunctional, lively, sustainable, and innovative agriculture in Germany and in other European countries. At the same time, he takes the emotional side of handing over a farm and the social aspect of smallholder agriculture for a community into consideration. Christian is one of the first experts in Germany to draw such a holistic picture of agriculture, considering ecological, economic, and social aspects.