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Harvesting at home: The Germans who live life in energy-saving mode

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Harvesting at home: The Germans who live life in energy-saving mode
The Schimmels outside their home. Photo: DPA
10:56 CET+01:00
The Schimmels have fresh milk every day. They also have homemade cheeses, complemented by vegetables from their own garden. They avoid rubbish, and don't have a car, even though their local train station is far away. But is this a model for everyone?

Dora is impatient. She is a fanatic for punctuality. On this late summer's day, she's had to wait for half an hour longer than usual. So she's making herself heard with her powerful voice. The others are barely looking on. Yet she's under time pressure; her udders are pressing. When her farmer finally appears with headscarf draped over her hair and a bucket in hand, the head-cow, who has the say in the meadow, relaxes.

A dog trots along behind Lina Schimmel. Someway behind, the calf follows. The cow, with its red coat, belongs to an old breed of domestic cattle called the Angeln Cattle. Her milk nourishes a family whose lifestyle could come from another century.

Lina Schimmel milking Dora. Photo: DPA

A homemade fence, a house which looks as if it's from an open-air museum, a wooden barn, vegetable patches, fruit meadows, beehives, and a pond dot the premises.

You can get to the Ostsee in minutes by bike. Near the Lenorenwald in Klützer Winkel, situated far in the north-west of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the Schimmels have constructed a self-sufficient farm which can only be reached by a forest path.

“I want to contribute as little as possible to the world's destruction,” Lina says. She articulates what an increasing number of people in the 21st century are moving towards sustainability. But do many people want to reroute their lifestyles quite so radically?

Just keep it up?

Today, sustainable living is not just a topic for the Green Party and eco-freaks: on sites such as “nebenan.de”, people living in towns and cities have long been developing places to exchange information. In Facebook and Meetup groups, interested people discuss ways of working towards a better world, or a clear conscience, whether it be through sharing, DIY or going without certain commodities. And on Instagram, some influences are promoting their sustainable, healthy lifestyle.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung recently spoke critically of the internet phenomenon, saying it's “much more often about buying the right thing, rather than barely anything.” Yet the phenomenon also means that companies are increasingly focused on consumers who want to know exactly what they're buying and how it is produced.

Lina Schimmel in the kitchen. Photo: DPA

Behind this lies the question which poses a new urgency for many people, especially in light of climate change: what measures should the individual take? And what can I do myself? “when I look at the population, I can see that many people recognize that the attitude of ‘just-keep-it-up' won't go well in the long term,” says futurologist Ulrich Reinhardt, 48, from the Foundation of Future Questions in Hamburg.

The Schimmels have noted the consequences and try to minimize their so-called ecological footprints. But is that really possible in today's Germany?

Ahead of the Trend

Steffen Schimmel was a lumberjack in the GDR. When he bought the family's farmhouse in the late 1980s, the border which divided Germany was not far away. When the Schimmels moved in together after the Wende, Helmut Kohl was still chancellor of Germany. You got by without social media like Facebook, and climate change wasn't the pressing topic that it is today.

Steffen still prefers being outside and working with animals. “Above all I wanted to work with horses,” the 52-year-old said. “And I looked for a way to make it work for me.”

Lina, 43, grew up in the West, in Hamburg. Her father loved nature, and even as a child she dreamed of getting out into nature, as some adults do, without drawing any consequences. They got to know each other as friends.

Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter

Lina runs barefoot through the vegetable patch. Fruit and vegetables grow behind a weather-beaten, moss-covered fence. Today she's planting dill seeds for next year's harvest. Spring, summer, autumn and winter: the seasons provide a rhythm for the family. In the springtime, Bert and Paul, two heavy draft horses pull the plough through the fields to prepare it for sowing. During the summer, they tread with a manure spreader through the fields and flower meadows, which serves as nutrition for the 60 varieties of bees.

The insects' sweet produce is one of the ways in which the family accesses the other world – the world outside, the world of commodity flows. The Schimmels also sell beef.

If the harvest isn't fruitful, or the milk is problematic, they can also buy what is lacking. They make cheese by hand – “a type of gouda” is what they produce most often, Lina says, as she cuts the curds from Dora's milk with a knife.

By the end of November – one of the warmest recorded by the German weather service – the Schimmels have everything ready for the year's cold period. Only a couple of apples are left to be picked, some beetroots and carrots still need to be taken into the cellar.

While in many parts of Germany, farmers are complaining about the consequences of drought, excess prevails at the Schimmels': the bees have produced two tonnes of honey. In normal years, they produce half a tonne.

As it's hardly rained, the animals haven't really had to stay inside. But according to the beekeeper, the lands weren't really dry, because in Klützer Winkel it's relatively cool, which means that the ground retains water for longer. So the sun has brought growth and flowers.

And he doesn't have to worry about selling his honey, because Germany is a world-leader in honey consumption, with Germans consuming 1.1 kilogrammes of the sticky substance per person per year.

Lost knowledge

A family meal. Photo: DPA

Steffen sits on a wooden table in front of the house door and takes a bite out of some bread with “Immenschiet” or “huge shit”, which is what he has called his honey. He talks of a neighbour from the war generation, who grew up in the countryside.

“What they all know!” he says. “What they all did!” they avoided rubbish, produced their own food. In those times it was a necessity. “There was no opportunity to buy everything quickly in a shop.”

When he talks to his neighbour, he recognizes what has been lost – knowledge about plants which can help as home remedies for illnesses, or even used in different ways. Soapwort as a washing agent, or ribwort for insect bites, Lina has also acquired a lot of knowledge about the healing properties of plants and herbs and uses them in teas and tinctures.

Other things from nature also come into use. The stalks of rye straw are mixed with clay to construct walls of fortify the roof. “The old ceiling beams have striae, which the clay fills up,” the farmer says about the house, which is thought to originate from the 27th century. It's a building technique which can otherwise be seen in an outdoor museum.

In the evening there was a roast

When Dora was finally milked that morning, she gave off a blissful “moo”. She kept still until Lina had finished. The sun is still low. You can hear the milk jets, hitting the base of the milk jugs. There's also the sound of some animal voices coming from the wood.

The Schimmel's cows and other animals have more than one function: they carry milk, meat and cheese. The are beasts of burden, guardians, pest controllers. Of the dozen cows which graze on the farm, two are slaughtered for their own use. Six or seven are sold.

And what about a crisis year? “We still haven't had one,” Steffen claims, and Lina confirms. One year, the bees didn't produce enough honey, and another year there the grain yield was lower. But they have never doubted their way of life. “It's never actually happened that everything is bad,” he said. The worst that's happened is that, one year, more animals died than expected.

There was one time that a bird of prey attacked the ducks which keep the vegetable patches free of snails. That day it became clear to Lina what it means to be responsible for animals. She had never before killed an animal. Now there was one lying there and suffering in front of her. She liberated the duck from its suffering. Later there was roast duck.

The price of self-determination

Their first son was born in 1999, their daughter in 2001, and their youngest son four years after that. It was hardest with their first son, Lina says. Sometimes she felt powerless. What if the baby was crying and the harvest needed to be bought in? Should she postpone until the next day, take some time off?

That may work in the city, but it doesn't work when there are plants and animals to be looked after. Taking a break from the everyday? Hard to do. “In January we spent four days in Denmark with Steffen's family. We don't like spending more time away than that.” Lina Schimmel's mother looked after the farm. There was support from a neighbour and a helper came to milk.

Being driven to friends' and sports clubs? That's a foreign concept to the children. They have to travel by bike to school in Kalkhorst, even in winter. There are three bus shelters in the area. In a way, they're like gateways to the rest of the world, even if their names hardly sound so. Kalkhorst-Dorf, Kalkhorst-Schule, Kalkhorst-Kirche.

Down on the plough

Sometimes airplanes fly by as Steffen is working in the fields. When holidaymakers, businessmen and commuters look out the window, they see land constricted into geometric formations. The planes remind Steffen of a different way of life, one of global trade and globalization. “Sometimes I feel strange, down here on the plough,” he says.

Steffen and his work horses. Photo: DPA

Or when the neighbours plough the fields with a tractor “while I slowly make furrow upon furrow.” On the other hand, he could not imagine sitting two meters above the floor, listening to the radio, working in such a way. Too far away from the ground, that's too distant.

The Schimmel's life is on energy saving mode. Does it sometimes feel like a loss, like a sacrifice? Lina Schimmel considers. The she says, “when we were last in Berlin, Steffen said there that he didn't understand the people and how everything was done there, in an emotional way.”

Could the family's lifestyle be a mass model, even for those who live in the big cities? Steffen Schimmel doesn't think so. “There have also got to be people who build planes,” he says. It's clear to him. Modern society depends on the division of labour: all tasks which need to be carried out develop responsibility and careers.

A Germany in which most people live like the Schimmels is largely just a thought experiment. But it's an innovative one, as shown by the “throne”, covered in a red material. Under the material is a loo with a flush. It was installed by the eldest son, for his girlfriend who didn't want to use the family's outhouse. It's only used by visitors.

Other parts of the Schimmel's world are met with a more positive response: that the demand for “clean” products, and a clear conscious, is growing has been noted in Klützer Winkel. The Schimmels have even recently installed internet, because with all the orders it was getting a bit confusing.

But futurologist Reinhardt doesn't believe that many people will soon do as the Schimmels have done. Trends such as Urban Gardening and conscious consumption were not initially discussed much. “Rather, in one or two generations, something fundamental will change,” he says.

Ultimately, time and knowledge are needed. In any case, the Schimmels give off the impression that they have both.

 
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