Bernd Schulz is Germany’s pioneering organic pig farmer. Now he’s involved in a project that “gives meat a face”.
You emerge from a typical Brandenburg pine forest onto a huge frozen meadow dotted with miniature air-raid shelters. Closer, you can make out pink, four-legged shapes: pigs standing around alone or in groups of two or three in the windswept snowy field, running around, poking their snouts out of the metallic bunkers that appear to be their homes. Some are munching old bread leftovers delivered from organic bakeries in Berlin.
This is Bernd Schulz’ pig farm in Gömnigk, one hour southwest of Berlin. It’s a free-range, organic pig pasture, to be more precise, and an absolute rarity in today’s world.
From bratwurst to schnitzel, pork is a staple of the German diet. According to the new Fleischatlas, published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the average German consumes the equivalent of 46 pigs over his or her lifetime. The vast majority of these pigs are raised in intensive indoor farming facilities housing thousands of animals in tight metal stalls with concrete floors; almost none of them get to see the light of day during their short lives.
Conditions on Bernd Schulz’s farm could not be more different. Three hundred swine live here. Sows suckle their offspring in little private shacks, while weaned piglets hang out in pens until they are old enough for the large meadows where pigs are free to wander and even lounge around together on straw bedding in a large arch-shaped barn.
It’s a free-range, organic pig pasture; an absolute rarity in today’s world.
In conventional pig farming, breeding and raising are done in different facilities. Not here. Schulz’ pigs are kept ‘home’ for their whole lives… until they reach about 10 months, when they’re sent to slaughter.
Occasionally, Schulz will kill a young pig himself and roast it whole. You can eat his Backschwein with sauerkraut and beer every last Thursday at his farm, or he’ll cater your party with one.
Bernd Schulz is not your usual farmer. He’s a pioneer – and quite a character at that. A sturdy, ruddy-complexioned man with an unusual moustache (missing the Hitler part in the middle), he was born in 1957 in the nearby village of Brück. In his youth he was one of East Germany’s top decathalonists – he almost made the Olympic team.
After studying animal production at Humboldt University, Schulz went to work in intensive pig farms in the GDR. When East German leader Erich Honecker gave communist brother nation Vietnam 120 pigs as a gift, Schulz was sent to the country to set up a pig farm, but couldn’t handle the hot climate.
Schulz was always unhappy about conditions at large indoor farms, such as the one he worked at from 1982-1992. In 1994 he travelled to an organic farm near Stonehenge in southwestern England to study how Europe’s pioneer of free-range pig farming, Helen Browning, was doing things differently. With the know-how he brought back, Schulz launched Germany’s first certified organic outdoor pig farm in 1996, developing his own system of breeding and raising pigs adapted to local conditions.
With nearly two decades of experience under his belt, he’s Germany’s go-to man for Bio-Schwein. Even an Italian prosciutto producer asked him to raise some rare black and white saddleback pigs for organic ham. He was also recruited to set up an organic pig farm near Leo Tolstoy’s birthplace in Tula, Russia – Schulz speaks Russian thanks to an excellent teacher in the communist days and is a great fan of Tolstoy, a utopian thinker with a thing or two to say about man’s relationship to nature. It was in the far east of Russia, on the banks of pristine Lake Baikal – near where his father was kept as a POW by the Russians for four years – that he met his German wife Gudrun.
Recently, the progressive-thinking Schulz was deemed crazy enough to go along with a new commercial project dreamed up by Berliner Dennis Buchmann: Meine Kleine Farm, a website that sells pork products with a photo of the exact pig the product came from on the package. The company’s motto? “We give meat a face.”
A certain number of Schulz’ pigs are reserved for the project, and Buchmann set up a ‘pigcam’ so that you can take a look at the happy hogs before you click to order a jar of Leberwurst or pack of sausages.
Meine Kleine Farm has been a runaway success. Farmer Schulz has done over 80 interviews with the German media; after TV chef Sarah Wiener visited the farm, dozens of people showed up at the pasture the next day. Just recently, the maitre de cuisine of the Adlon Hotel sent someone to check out the porkers in person.
Always a restless pioneer, Schulz is now working on a kind of crowdfunding scheme to buy more sows: customers invest an amount of money, becoming ‘pig sponsors’. In return, they will be paid interest in the form of money and/or organic pork.
“We eat too much meat,” says Schulz, while flinging some hay at a group of excited piglets… who’ll be turned into schnitzel before the year is out. But this is a different kind of meat.
To visit Bernd Schulz’ farm or sign up for a roast pork party, visit www.backschwein-tenne.de; to look your food in the face, go to www.meinekleinefarm.org.