DAIRY DUSTUP Till the Cows Come Home

Barbara Scheitz runs the biggest organic dairy in Europe but has clashed with local residents over her ambitions to grow even bigger.
Andechser cheese is a popular organic dairy product.

In picturesque Bavaria, a gently curving avenue surrounded by wild herb gardens, tennis courts and football fields leads to what was meant to be Europe's largest organic dairy, run by an ethically minded family company that works with local farmers.

But local residents, including monks who live in the mountain monastery that towers over the site, have waged a long running battle with the Andechser Scheitz Dairy over its new premises, which at the moment is little more than a pile of rubble.

Barbara Scheitz, the 50-year-old chief executive, has been working out of a temporary steel container on the site for far longer than she would like. In the baking August sun, she peered through the dusty windows and sighed.

“The office staff has been working in this container for nearly 17 years,” she said. But this is about to change.

After years of battles with local residents, Ms. Scheitz looks forward to working in a new facility in the village of Andechs in upper Bavaria.

The beer-brewing monks of the neighboring Benedictine monastery were mostly worried about the tower: At 36 meters, or about 120 feet, it would be as high as the village church.

Next month, after all the waiting, planning and building, the dairy company's high-bay warehouse will begin operations.

The building is huge – 18 meters high and 150 meters long, or about 500 feet. It is equipped with state-of-the art cooling and sorting technology, with room for 4,000 pallets that can automatically be stacked and moved.

The warehouse was designed in the style of artist and eco-pioneer Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose “creative forms and bright colors harmonized with the vision for the dairy,” Ms. Scheitz said.

Expansion was necessary to bundle facilities for delivery, production and distribution in one location.

But whether the facility had to be so big – or to have this form and appearance – has been the center of a long-running dispute in this idyllic part of Bavaria between Ammer and Starnberg lakes.

The original plan called for an administration building and a tower with a bulbous roof in the style of Mr. Hundertwasser, the Austrian painter, architect and environmental advocate.

But when Ms. Scheitz submitted her plans to the Andechser district council in 2009, a wave of protest surged.  Nearby residents feared that construction would create even more traffic and noise than was already caused by the shifts working around he clock.

The local residents criticized the “disturbing effect on the unique cultural landscape” and the threatening “movement of vistas” on surrounding hiking paths.

The state office for historic preservation pointed out that there were still possibly Roman ruins below ground. And the beer-brewing monks of the neighboring Benedictine monastery were mostly worried about the tower: At 36 meters, or about 120 feet, it would be as high as the village church.

Ms. Scheitz, who grew up here on a farm in the hills, with pigs, cows and a May tree in front of the barn, is determined to find a compromise to let her dairy operations grow. She loves her line of work.

As a teenager, she helped packed butter at night. After school, she trained in her parents’ dairy to become a skilled dairy worker. Then she earned a business degree and worked in other dairies in northern Germany and France.

In the office outside the dairy building site, Ms. Scheitz pressed a few buttons on a remote control.  On a wall of the steel container, bright colored charts appeared  – one dotted with red markings.

“These are the locations of the milk farmers who deliver to us,” she said.  The area between Kempten im Allgäu and Waging Lake in Chiemgau is covered with red dots.

“We plotted a radius of 150 kilometers around the dairy, where milk collection makes sense,” Ms. Scheitz said.   “The farm structures are good, as are the feed and Omega-3-content of the milk.”

Other charts in the office feature slogans like: “We carry responsibility – joyfully, of our own free will!”

It is a reference to the fact that, back in the 1980s, her father had already begun to process organic milk.  In the mid-1990s, when there was increasing talk of dairy intolerance and allergies, he had the idea of processing goats’ milk in addition to cows’ milk.

Ms. Scheitz also has done pioneering work since she took over management of her parents’ dairy in 2003. She was the first in the German milk industry to reach agreement with farmers on production of milk that was free of genetically modified products.  She was also first to work out a relatively accurate tracking system for products via the Internet.

In 2009, she converted all products marketed under the label “Andechser Natur” to organic products.  And she was also the first in Germany to offer yogurt products with Stevia sweetener. She had to withdraw these from the market a few months ago, however, because there was no food permit in Germany for the originating plant in South America.

This hasn’t stopped Ms. Scheitz from thinking about a new approach.  “I will not give up the goal of selling products without industrial sugar,” she said.

Anyone who deals with her company, now the leading  organic milk processor, expects a fight. “Negotiations about milk prices are often about 0.01 percent,” Ms. Scheitz.

Every two months, she sits down with farmers to set fair prices.  While the net price for a kilo of conventional milk is about €0.28, her bio-farmers receive €0.49 for their organic milk. It is an “historically high price difference,” she said.

 

199 Andechser Molkerei-01

In view of the difficult and cost-sensitive market, it is good to know she has the support of her family, including a sister who deals with “cow sponsors.” These are people who feel connected to dairy cows in a heartfelt way and want to be kept informed “about all important events in the life of a sponsored cow,” as it says on the company’s website.  “Organic fans” pay €96 a year for this, which includes a food parcel every six months.

Her brother still runs the parents’ farm and is involved in local politics. Her mother helps out in the farmhouse shop and her father who keeps on a watchful eye on operations.

“We are too much of a family operation to think of a stock listing,” said Ms. Scheitz, who also has two schoolchildren to raise.

To be able to reposition the dairy clearly as a family company, she would like to buy back the 24.8 percent that is owned by the French food company Bongrain, which, however, is not cooperating, and has since taken over another well-known German organic dairy – a direct competitor to Andescher Scheitz.

It’s “an intolerable situation,” said Ms. Scheitz. “If it were up to me, we and Bongrain would have long parted ways.”

That is also what the milk farmers think.  They back Ms. Scheitz, including her plans to modernize the dairy in which they have invested. They also support the dairy in its dispute with the business-minded monks on safeguarding branding rights.

Regarding the dairy’s controversial tower, Ms. Scheitz said she would drop plans to build it and even a smaller version approved by authorities.

 

 

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]