October 3rd

The Hof

No ordinary barnyard

Here in Hessen, there is nothing quaint about rural life and the keeping up of traditions. If I say something like

            “…the small flocks of sheep and goats…” 

            “…the wheat ripening in the fields…”

            “…the village church and cobblestoned streets…”

you might imagine some peaceful scene, the place that time forgot, with pipe music or manly work songs heard in the background. But it’s nothing at all like that. You’ve seen the photos of rural Hessen: lovely, aren’t they? Pictures, even pictures on Instagram, don’t lie, but they only tell half the story.  If you can still hear me over the deafening roar of the monster tractors that charge down our street, let me explain.

When I say countryside, what comes to mind? Cows, sheep, horses, pigs? Yes. We have all of that here in abundance. Out in the pastures, of course, but also right here in town. On a morning walk in the village you’ll see sheep grazing in a roped off section of someone’s lawn and in the driveway next door someone pulls up in a hulking new SUV, turning off the thumping, mindless beat of electro-pop. There is a lot of beeping and banging and yanking doors open and slamming them shut and anything anyone says in this town is in ALL CAPS. The perpetual energy of the middle class, of which the farmers are the mainstay, is felt everywhere.

We landed a year ago in a Ferienwohnung (holiday apartment) on the ground floor of an old but modernized house in the center of the village. We’re around the corner from the little church with its beautiful ringing bells and just two doors down from the main road that cuts through town and offers a bus stop, a small chain bakery, and a butcher shop.  Winter was quiet. Then, come Spring, we watched in amazement the constant parade of barrelling tractors—massive modern beasts, pulling all kinds of huge and bizarre equipment. The pace is frantic, dictated by what needs to happen in what exact order to accomplish the harvest of hay in June and, later, the crop fields. The near constant noise and the smell of diesel and manure is, I would have to say, nearly maddening. Sometimes we have to shout to hear one another in our own kitchen. But this is what goes into making our daily bread and we have a front row seat. We had, unknowingly, settled on Tractor Way. Turns out our street is one of the main throughfares of industrious agriculture in our bit of North Hessen.  Every town has such a road. They just won’t tell you which one it is.  Because everybody knows, of course. Had we known what dots to connect on Google Maps it would have been obvious even in the dead of winter. Alas. 

A large sign at the edge of town informs the uninitiated:

           Jemand niemals soll vergessen, Bauern sorgen fur das Essen !

(Roughly translated: Never forget it’s the farmers who provide us food!)

Living in Tractor Way has its perks. We have a unique view into farming life that few if any urban and suburban Germans will have, no matter how many times they go on holiday in the countryside. Across the street from us lives a family who clearly come from farming but are now one stop removed. The husband, a fit man in his early 40s, runs a commercial painting business. His wife, ever cheerful, strong, energetic, has her hands full with three young sons.  We have only a nodding, courteous but COVID-safe acquaintance with them. The property is a true farm house. They keep a few pigs in the barn, grow corn in the back. The boys are often taken out on Opa’s old tractor from what looks like the 1950s. There is a young uncle  who frequently comes by on his towering, shiny new Massey Ferguson monster, stirring up excitement among the boys. The wide paved area in front of the barn doors is the scene of frequent visits by various townspeople who chat (in ALL CAPS) from their cars, trucks, or tractors or linger a moment on the front steps. Looking out of our kitchen window, we have learned a thing or two about village life. We have seen traditions alive but modernized. We have seen the plain hard work and the camaraderie too, the real tangible bonds of community that are so written about and seldom seen. The end of the harvest time is still a big occasion. Down the street rolls a truck pulling a wagon full of local girls, all in jeans and t-shirts, singing…what? perhaps an old song but maybe just the words to the tuneless beeping pop music played on the truck radio. Festive, nevertheless. Or the day we witnessed the youngest boy sent off to school for the first time, proudly holding his decorated cone of gifts and everyone taking pictures.

I have come to understand that all of this farming life and sense of community is based on the Hof. It is the key, the engine, the blueprint, the spirit of rural Hessen. So what is a Hof? There is no word for Hof in English. “Courtyard” or “Barnyard” don’t come close. The Hof is the inner space of the farmer’s home base. Collectively, the Hofs are the cells, the nodes in a giant network overlaying the landscape of North Hessen. But more about that in a bit. First, the Hof itself.

The middle son: only a few weeks ago he played with toys!

The doors to the Hof

Facing the street, often on the main road that links the small villages and towns together, are these large houses, perhaps a hundred feet wide on the street. But if you look again you’ll see that half the “house”, sharing a roof with it, is really the barn. Tractors, cars, work vans go in and out through these large barn doors and into a covered space, the Durchfahrt. Accessible from this high, covered space are the stalls or stables and the hayloft. This inner space is tall enough to have accommodated fully loaded hay wagons in generations past.

Back in the day, the farmer or one of the kids would open the big doors in the morning and lead out onto the street the family’s pair of draft horses. Out of the exact same Hof doors today emerge tractors new or old, huge or not, some costing half the house. Much has changed in farming but not the basic concept of the home base (the Hof) and the allotted fields circling the village, where the work is done.

At the end of the day’s work in the fields, the tractors — formerly horses — are returned to the Hof for the night. In the brief times when the Hof doors are open, one can spy what lies beyond the passageway, in the sunlit space beyond.

The inner Hof

One or more Nebengebaude (auxiliary buildings) make the Hof either an L-shape, bracket-shape, or, very rarely, a large, full square.  In this enclosed space open to the sky is where some of the farm animals were/are fed and watered. Various home chores have their space here: laundry is dried, garbage organized, carpets beaten clean, etc. But almost anything can happen in a Hof. It can be a car repair shop, a scrap metal depot, a Ladenhof where one can buy eggs and local produce, a sculpture gallery, a beer garden or summer restaurant, or just an untidy, falling down place where all the clutter and junk of a lifetime or two gets piled up.

The Hof is not always a cheerful or busy place. With our never-ending online search for houses, we have seen (spied upon, it seems) so many Hofs that are the jumbled middens of a generation or two lost to financial ruin, depression, illness or some combination.

The House

The farm house—not a separate structure but built into the Hof—should really be translated as farmers house. It is where farmers are raised and educated. Here live, typically, a married couple, their children, and maybe a pair of grandparents. Perhaps another relative. It is still the case that the work away in the fields is done by the men; the women tend to the house and kids. But any Landfrau who has grown up in a farm village knows full well how to drive the tractor and often does.

In fact, it seems any necessary task can be done by any member of the family. Germany’s farming talent pool is deep and strong. The children ride along with their Papa or Onkel in the tractor literally from the time they are infants. The kids are eager to join the adults around them in whatever work is necessary from the time they can grasp a tool and drag it around. Instead of bicycles, the boys are given fancy toy tractors to play with on the sidewalks of the village, with realistic miniature equipment to pull along. They methodically practice backing up, loading and unloading things. Getting a machine into the Hof is the hardest part. To be given permission to back a real tractor into the Hof is an initiation for the boy.

So the Farmer’s House is the first and perhaps most essential component of the farm. It is where farmers are produced.

Dörnberg, a typically compact village

The Village

The Hofs, collectively, form the villages that are the nodes of the network. You can see this network, this neuro-muscular structure of North Hessen, when you turn on satellite view in Google and zoom out. Around the clumps of towns and villages fan out in an almost spiral pattern the different shaded fields and pastures. The network of roads carry hurried commuters tailing tractors and trucks. It is fascinating to me because there is nothing comparable in the North American landscape. In the U.S. “farm” brings to mind a place where large spaces separate farm families from one another,  the farmhouse and fields being one unit controlled by the farm family. Even this vision persists only as a marketing fantasy; the farmers in most parts of the U.S. and Canada having been turned into tenant workers of Big Ag on huge industrialized holdings.

The landscape here is quite different. Farming families are not isolated from one another by distance but rather packed in tightly together into noisy, friendly, sturdily built villages. Clustered around the church is the innermost and oldest part of the town, with its narrow alleys and bundled together houses. This is where the farmers still live (the commuters and retirees mostly occupying the newer white-lego-block neighbourhoods just adjacent the the town center, on what were fields) and here in the center of the town is where the farmers keep most of the heavy equipment as well as animals that are not being pastured.

In the village, everyone’s front door faces the street, so it’s easy to guess what people do with their time. The farmers emerge from their homes in the morning and go to work, just as their next-door neighbours do. The farmer drives his tractor to a nearby equipment yard to pick up some huge and bizarre piece of equipment and heads out to the fields. His neighbour, the commuter, gets into their Audi and heads off to their job in the city, only 20 minutes away. Because the houses and Hofs are concentrated in dense nodes, the surrounding farmland is relatively open and accessible. It is not trespassing to walk along the tractor lanes at the edges of the fields.  Just don’t tramp on the crops! In Hessen, the people who work the land and the people who walk in it for leisure co-exist peacibly. They came to some arrangement long ago.

Nordhessisch patchwork: rapeseed, wheat or barley, and pasture

The Fields

In North Hessen, the particular patchwork of fields surrounding the towns is mostly wheat, rye, barley, rapeseed, as well as  pasture and some potato fields or fruit orchards.  Looking at these aerial images you see the fields fan out, radiate out from the villages almost like the ripple from a stone or the spiral of a nautilus shell.

I’m no agronomist but I have a degree or two and ought to be able to explain to myself what is being cultivated here and how.  COVID and a lack of confidence prevented me from having discussions with farmers but Lothar and I picked up a few clues as the weeks and months passed. What we had thought in late winter were renegade cabbage plants growing in the ditches were actually escapees from the fields of rapeseed (Brassica nappus), grown for biofuel and cooking oil, that you know as occasional Instagram stars with their hurt-your-eyes yellow.  I don’t mind these giant squares of yellow in the landscape but I prefer the fields of grain at all stages. When in the spring these fields are just rows of short grass you can still spot the early field larks crouching there when they’re not hovering and twittering high up in the sky. In mid-summer the grain fields are at their most lovely, whether seen close up—the beautiful detail tempting you to steal a stalk or two to add to a bouquet—or enjoyed en masse on windy days as the fields ripple like the sea. The ecologist in me cheers on the occasional splotches of poppy or sorrel, proof that this field at least wasn’t completely drenched in chemicals.  

Imperfect monoculture

We begin to deduce the specific purpose of the different pieces of equipment being dragged at warp speed through our neighbourhood; for example, the sadistic looking ferris-wheel thingies are for spreading the cut hay to let it dry in the sun. The two spikey metal rings that are held up like butterfly wings in town are then lowered onto the fields, and smaller circles within the circles spin their spikes to mix the cut hay. A few quick passes of this machine equates to a dozen or so people busy for half the day with their  pitchforks.

I haven’t figured out whether the farmers own these fields or have life-long or multi-generation leases, as is/was customary in much of Europe. I do know that the history of Hessen differs quite a bit from the eastern, Prussian states, which were dominated by feudal lords owning giant tracts of land.

An old farmhouse prettied up — but where are the farmers?

The Future of the Hof?

The ancient machine of agriculture still runs on these four main parts: Haus, Hof, Feld, Dorf, with the Hof at the center, the node, the pivot point around which the whole mechanism moves. What a hearth used to mean for a home, so the Hof is to a whole way of life in Hessen. That this landholding pattern and way of life should still be in place, albeit highly mechanized, in the two, three centuries since these farmhouses were built, is interesting and says something about Hessen and its history. Is it my fantasy, or is it true that “history”—wars, dynasties, emperors, popes, so-called ruling houses—seemed to have moved over Hessen  like weather systems but the essential socio-political blueprint of the place: Haus-Hof-Feld-Dorf, has remained essentially the same.

There is no romanticizing of country life. For half the year or more the work is exhausting. Many summer nights when I go to bed at 10:00 or later I still hear a tractor out in the fields or heading home. And they’ll be at it again early in the morning. I silently cheer on the farmers who hurtle down our street in clouds of dust and straw, whether on towering shiny red showpieces or on 60-, 70-year old machines still knocking and rocking along. The Hof landscape and culture appears healthy and intact but we don’t know the whole story. Our neighbours and their closest relatives seem to be doing well, but I have heard that, even here, many farming families are struggling with low prices and debt. Proud, anxious, barely making it. But still on the scene. So, the sound of a tractor at full throttle means something. “We’re still here.” The ruckus is as loud as ever but I hear it differently.

Off to work !

As a whole, Germany is losing 4,000 farms a year. Consolidation. I don’t know if Hessen is faring better than the rest of the country. I suspect it is. That the different states have different histories of  landholding and inheritance laws might have something to do with it. But the change in farming is here too. I don’t have to read the news. I know from our house search that the number of farming families must be declining. The number of houses for sale under 80,000 Euro tells us  something. The truth is that if it wasn’t for this decline we couldn’t have looked in North Hessen as a place where we might be able to buy a house.  The bargains we come upon are usually large, rambling, falling-down, two- or three-sided Hofs:  much too big for us and too badly in need of repair or demolition (if they are not protected as historical places). On some you see the earth plaster so eroded that the weave of wattle is plainly exposed, birds visit the cracks and holes. Other buildings are gradually covered up and destroyed by vines. It’s not romantic. It’s just sad. Because you know that these houses were built to last—but only if they were cared for and lived in. A house left empty, with no heating and a chink here and there to let the rain in… add a few modish and dumb ideas over the years, like wallpaper, fake panelling, and carpeting, to seal in the rot and seal the house’s fate. 

There are many farm houses on the market that have been very recently lived in, and these are not wrecks but tell the same sad news. Germans are not so much into “staging” houses for sale. So you see clearly what the story is. A tidy kitchen, if a bit dated. On the wall a crucifix or scene from the bible. Folded away or still at the table, a wheelchair; in the living room a narrow bed and a portable toilet. In the attic or keller a jumble of things stationed undecidedly between useful and trash. With a harsh and practical gaze we can look past the family’s history laid bare and know there is opportunity here. You might ask, Why hadn’t the kids cared a bit more, done a bit more? Who knows. Perhaps the old folks wouldn’t let them, stubbornly hung on. Now the family is selling it, grubby furniture and all.

Young couples escaping the city and the treadmill of renting might take an interest. Bucking the trend of all new and shiny, they might  look past-through-under all that laminat and tile, on the hunt for authenticity,  and sense the stubborn, true presence of solid wood. With enough time, sweat, and money they might return these buildings to their original beauty. But does that really tell the story of the  generations that lived there? And what about the future of farming?

 I’ll need to live another year or two in Germany to hazard an answer.