Creating energy from corn once seemed like a revolutionary idea in Germany. But subsidies for the biogas industry have led to entire regions of the country being covered by the crop, and investors are eagerly waiting for local farmers’ land to go for sale. Some of those farmers who lease their land say they have been “ruined.”
Dairy farmer Renate Rahn has made it through a number of industry crises, including the mad-cow disease scare of 2001 and the dramatic fall in milk prices in 2009. “But now we’re being brought to our knees,” she says.
Low milk prices aren’t the only thing threatening her. Rahn lives near the Eider River in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where she is having an increasingly hard time finding affordable land to lease for grazing her cows and growing their feed. Over the past four years, the average cost of leasing a hectare (2.5 acres) of land has skyrocketed from €250 ($315) to over €600 per year.
She and her fellow dairy farmers just lost even more corn fields to biogas companies. The corn grown there won’t be used to feed any cows. Instead, it will be sent to a reactor for refinement. The facility, which functions somewhat like a cow’s stomach, will be fed chopped-up corn twice a day. The corn is transformed into gases in the dome of the reactor. Energy-rich methane is then channeled into a combined heat and power unit (CHP) and transformed into electricity.
While dairy farmers like Rahn are being threatened by the low prices that food discounters offer for their milk, the biogas producers have nothing to complain about. Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG) has subsidized the energy the biogas companies produce for 20 years.
Rahn is now forced to feed her cows soy meal from Brazil, which is constantly growing more expensive. She knows she will lose the battle over the raw materials, and she blames politicians for having “ruined us.”