Talking Farmer to Farmer: Come Along on My Great European Ag Adventure

Did you know dairy cows give more milk when they listen to Mozart? Ah, the things you learn from the tour bus guide when passing through farm country on your way to Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Central Market Hall in Budapest, Hungary

Call it a cathedral to food. After touring farms in Europe, Darcy Maulsby was thrilled to see the next step in the farm-to-fork connection at the impressive Central Market Hall in Budapest, Hungary. She brought home a prized bag of sweet Hungarian paprika.

While we don’t raise dairy cows on my family’s farm near Lake City, Iowa, I felt right at home, talking farming in rural Europe. Maybe it was the snow. I traveled 5,000 miles from Iowa to Austria for a Danube River cruise in March, only to be met by more snow and ice.

I was with nearly 100 members of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation for this experience of a lifetime. During our week-long European adventure across southern Germany, Austria and Hungary, we visited with European ag ministers and toured local farms. While these farmers grow different crops than we do (apricots, canola, barley, sugar beets and a disease-resistant grain called spelt), they face many of the same challenges. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Many people live in cities now and have romanticized ideas about what the farm is—or should be.
  • We need our international markets.
  • Organic is big, and growing.
  • GMOs are a major issue. Some European countries allow livestock farmers to feed GMOs; others do not.
  • Water quality is an issue, including nitrate levels. Manage this challenge; or face regulations.
  • Farm profitability is a challenge. In Austria, about two thirds of producers farm part time and have off-farm jobs to supplement their income.
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like animal and environmental activist groups are powerful.
  • Austria has nature-protected areas where the government controls the land. The controlling agency dictates how the land can be fertilized. Farmers are strictly regulated and must keep detailed records.
  • It’s tough to pass the family farm on to the next generation. Many European families are having fewer children, and fewer young people want to be farmers. Tax issues also complicate the process of passing on a farm.
Luscious apricots are a key ingredient for sachertorte.

Luscious apricots are a key ingredient for sachertorte. This famous chocolate apricot cake with dark chocolate ganache is to Austria what apple pie is to America—an edible, national treasure.

Perhaps most surprising was that up to 70% of Austrian farmers’ income is subsidized by the government, according to Nikolaus Morawitz with the Vienna Chamber of Agriculture.

Wow! Talk about food for thought. My takeaways?

  • Be wary of overreach by both the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and be prepared to challenge it.
  • Share your story to help non-farm people better understand where their food comes from.
  • Invest your time, talent and treasures into your local community. Make it a place where the next generation wants to live and work.

Let’s eat

One more thing—don’t forget to savor the journey. Is there anything more intrinsic to a place than its food? It’s a question I savored when I wrote my book, “Culinary History of Iowa,” and it inspired me during my European adventures.

apricots we sampled near Vienna

I’ll never forget the robust, sweet, smooth taste of the apricots we sampled near Vienna. And, as I sat in the luxurious, red dining room of the Hotel Sacher in the heart of Vienna, savoring a slice of sachertorte (main ingredient: apricots), I knew why this is the ultimate special-occasion dessert in Austria. Sweets also work their magic in apfelstrudel (apple strudel), another signature Austrian dessert made with locally-grown fruit. Yummmm.

It’s time to head to the kitchen, turn on some Mozart, and cook up a taste of Europe as I ponder my next ag adventure.