Plow, cultivate and reverence
Interview with Karl Ludwig Schweisfurth, visionary and environmentalist
From being Europe's biggest meat producer to becoming an ecological visionary: In 1984, Karl Ludwig Schweisfurth changed his life radically and turned his back to industrial slaughtering of animals in order to promote sustainable agriculture in Germany.
On the basis of ethics, the love for nature and quality he creates the “Herrmannsdorfer Landwerkstätten” where not lower prices and growth are king, but reverence for life. In his opinion the consumer has to make his buying decisions consciously to influence the product policy of big corporations. We all have daily choices, he says.
A conversation about the questions of our times and the reasons that brought him to overthrow his life radically.
Manuela & Carsten: What moved you to change your life that radically?
Karl-Ludwig Schweisfurth: I was really fed up. It was less a knowing how I know today, than a feeling, a strong feeling: we got off the right track and now we’re marching in the wrong direction. The way we are treating the environment, the animals, that can’t lead to a good ending. I also understood: all our values get kicked out of our hands if the only goal is to produce always more and faster and cheaper. We love to refer to our European and christian values, and still we don’t respect and disregard them. Eventually we harm ourselves. To produce good meat, ham and sausages I have to kill animals. So at least I have to think about what and especially how I do it? Then, one day, it was clear and I said to my wife: “Dorothee, I’ve got an idea! We drop out and start all over again.” The idea I had was pretty much exactly what you can see here today. I was still young, only 54. So I sold my company, but I didn’t really know where it all would lead, where I was jumping. I only knew what I wanted to do: organic farming, regional networking, bringing things back together. But it still could have all gone wrong.
M&C: Is it important to risk something in your life?
KLS: Yes, it is important to take a risk. Even if you don’t exactly know where it all leads. I know that’s tough and not many will do that. I could have lost everything, my name, my money, that happens quickly nowadays.
M&C: Did you ever regret your decision?
KLS: I feel better than ever before and feel very grateful. I don't know if I would even sit here if I would have continued. If I would have survived the pressure. I would have had to do things like automatize, lay off people, highly qualified people, as normal today. Now there are people that just do some work they don’t understand, badly paid, under worst conditions in huge slaughterhouses, where there is no such thing as dignity of humans, let alone of animals.
I am really happy, it’s a whole different life here, for me and our 200 employees, you may have noticed, it doesn’t feel like a factory at all.
M&C: Our whole economy is based on: always faster, bigger, cheaper. Where does this lead?
KLS: It’s what I call the Lidlising of our economy! Always more pressure to produce more and more, clothes we don’t need, to produce always cheaper. And so we lose values and destroy our planet irrevocably. With the farmers disappearing we lose an incredible amount of knowledge that has been acquired over the centuries in Europe. We lose the knowledge about how to take care of the land, and we don’t even realize it! Just ask a normal person. “Everything all right,” he’ll say. “The supermarkets are full of food, everything packaged, two cutlets in a package, a kilo of beef durable for 8 days. Where’s the problem?” The fact that farmers are disappearing happens so quietly that we don’t even take note of it.
M&C: Did we as consumers become too gullible and easy to be deceived?
KLS: We have access to all the information we need, but we still don’t act. We’re not moved, we act as if someone else’s planet was on stake.
But still I am a very optimistic person and think about it a lot. I think lighthouses could help, where people could go and see that it does work differently, and it is better because the soil is healthy and fertile, animals are treated with respect and love, and people working there are happy. Like a good example, a model. I always help others wherever I can if they want to create a space like that. I cooperate with some projects here in Germany as well as in Russia and Cairo, Egypt.
M&C: Would it help if we’d try to get in touch with nature again?
KLS: Yes, that would certainly help. We’d need more people who just go for it, who rent a hectare of land and try to live with it with their families. It takes one to three hours of work each day and its the most precious and important gift you can give your family, your children, as stability for their lifes, to teach them how to work with the soil. I say that because I witness it many times here, when they get to be with the animals they develop a feeling for living nature and where our food comes from. That we don’t live from supermarkets.
M&C: In the last advertising campaign you did for
Herrmannsdorfer you claimed: „Everyone has the choice“. Does the
consumer really have a choice?
KLS: Well, theoretically, yes, of course. He doesn't have to buy all the cheap stuff, all the cheap clothes he doesn't really need. It's his choice!
M&C: What can I do to consume responsibly?
KLS: Think for yourself and ask questions! Always be critical, reflect things, ask again. For example: what's the use of an organic seal on a package of frozen asparagus from China? It's been frozen using a huge amount of energy, as for the frozen transportation, the packaging...it goes against all rules of logic ecology and still bears the organic seal. So, there is no way around, always think for yourself, question and challenge what you are told.
M&C: Here at Herrmannsdorf you produce highly qualitative food. Isn't it too expensive?
KLS: At first it is of course expensive. At Lidl you can get a cutlet for 3,99 Euros, that's cheaper than dogfood. That price is only possible if the meat comes from fully automated slaughterhouses with no values or ethics. Our cutlet, produced carefully and ecologically, costs 12 Euro. So it's a really tempting offer to just buy the cheap one and try not to think about the animal.
M&C: Do we set our priorities wrong when consuming?
KLS: Yes, there's no doubt about that. We won't be able to go without the government raising their minimum requirements drastically when it comes to how we treat the animals, the soil, the plants, how we keep our animals and how we produce food. To think that we have been fighting 20 years to get the chicken out of those cages, 20 years! The power of the industry is so big that governments are helpless.
M&C: Does economical success contradict ecological responsibility?
KLS: Well, no, as the example Herrmannsdorf clearly shows.
M&C: Did we humans disconnect from nature?
KLS: Totally! Even agricultural engineers don't know anything about nature anymore. It's shocking, we forgot what feeds us and keeps us alive.
M&C: What could be done to reverse this trend?
KLS: Here at Herrmannsdorf we love to work with children, to give them some key moments they won’t forget. I go on the field with a spade with 8- or 9-year-olds and ask them to touch and smell the soil and ask what they experience? Often I hear them say: “that’s disgusting!”. They say that because they never really had a close look. Then I explain them that this is the basis of life on the planet. A spadeful of earth is full of life, not dead matter. Then I ask them: “What do you think, how many living things exist in this handful of mother earth? As many as there are people on earth! Billions. And inspite of all the scientific knowledge we have we can only guess the complex systems at work there, we’ll never know for sure.” That’s a miracle we cannot truly understand, we can only sense. That sense of wonder, that’s what I want to give these kids, so they never forget. Why do we always think we have to understand everything, isn’t it enough to gaze in amazement at the wonder which obviously works perfectly? “Kids, I hope you’ll never kick mother earth without respect or throw garbage or toxics on her.” I’m convinced, they never forget.
M&C: You often talk about the connection and unity of all things. What’s behind this philosophy?
KLS: Unity can only be done or achieved by unifying yourself. Just as you can’t speak about love, you have to love to truly understand it. Not just falling in love, but really love. So you can only understand unity if you live it. And it’s easy: live with the land and the animals, even if it’s only a small piece of land.
I think the pressures on a person living in a city always gets bigger, just to keep up with your living standards. A big car, kids have to go to violin lessons, and you have to do things you don’t really like just to impress people you don’t even like. And this pressure creates a deep longing for something more true. But still, to really take the jump into the unknown is really hard!
M&C: Here in the western societies, what is our relationship towards animals?
KLS: Fact is, we see animals as things, not as feeling beings, even though sometimes, at school or sunday church, we are told that they are part of creation just as we are.
Animals are not our fellow creation, they are just things for us. If it weren’t so, there would be none of those unspeakably cruel slaughterhouses, where 25.000 pigs are killed each day fully automated. If I have to kill to survive as a basic law of life, at least I have to have reverence for the animal. That also means the butcher has to love the animal. We have to take good care of the animal, give them a good life and feed them good food and take good care of how we kill it, without unnecessary stress and fear.
M&C: How does life feel for you today?
KLS: Life feels pretty damn good! (laughs) And I am very grateful. I don’t play golf, I don’t watch TV and I don’t go on cruises.
I just go out to my symbiotic agriculture and observe, what’s happening, or I go to the workshop and say to my master butcher: “Hey, I had an idea last night how we can make our sausage even better. Let’s try it!”
Next year I turn 80, how couldn’t I be very grateful!
M&C: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
KLS: Just rent yourself a piece of land and dare the adventure to live with the land and the animals, then your life will change on a fundamental level.
By the way this is not a new thought. It is said that the french philosopher Voltaire’s last words were: “Go out in the garden and work”. As easy as that!
The interview was conducted July 1st, 2009 at Herrmannsdorf near Munich, Germany.