Mr. Rukwied, it’s March, the farmers have to go back to the fields, have the protests run out of steam? We have organized over a thousand actions across Germany, including two major demonstrations in Berlin. On January 8th we put 100,000 tractors on the roads. We were very present in the media and had already implemented an important part of our demands; the federal government took the introduction of motor vehicle tax off the table. Since February we have been running campaigns, for example to reduce bureaucracy. And on negotiations with the federal government.

Does that mean no more tractor demos for now? We gradually phased out active demonstration activities from the end of January. However, we continue to reserve the right to take individual actions.

Joachim Rukwied, 62, has been President of the German Farmers’ Association since 2012. From 2017 to 2020 he was also president of the European farmers’ association COPA. Rukwied is a trained farmer and took over his parents’ farm in Eberstadt near Heilbronn 30 years ago. He sits on several supervisory and administrative boards, including those at KfW, Südzucker, BayWa and the Landwirtschafter Rentenbank.

After the Federal Council approved the abolition of agricultural diesel last Friday, what does that mean in concrete terms? German agriculture is being significantly weakened in European competition. We will keep the topic of “agricultural diesel” in the political debate and intensify it again in the direction of the federal election.

What brought so many farmers onto the streets? An interplay of various factors. We had to accept cuts before that, so we remained calm. But the cuts in agricultural diesel plus the introduction of the vehicle tax for agricultural machinery were the last straw. Agricultural diesel was about abolishing climate-damaging subsidies, but that only makes sense if I have alternative technologies that could replace diesel. But we won’t have that for the next ten or 15 years. The cuts would have meant an additional billion in taxes for agriculture – not just a drop, but a gush that was the last straw.

Was it a strategic mistake by the traffic light coalition that these cuts affected everyone: vegetable farmers, winegrowers, cattle breeders, organic farms as well as conventional farms? The cuts were a cardinal mistake on the part of the federal government because you cannot place undue burden on one professional group. What contributed to the frustration was that we in the Borchert Commission and the “Agriculture Future Commission” developed concepts for agriculture, for example for greater animal welfare, but almost nothing was implemented. On the other hand, ever-increasing bureaucracy. We were the association that first said “yes” to a greener agricultural policy. We also had to convince our profession of this; these were challenging discussions. However, almost half of the money for eco-regulations was not used because the costs were higher than the compensation payments. This resulted in frustration. Politics itself has brought farmers onto the streets.

A few days ago it was said that the German Farmers’ Association was now ready to compromise – of all things on agricultural diesel. The Farmers’ Association of Saxony-Anhalt criticized the fact that the German Farmers’ Association was “subtly rowing back”? A statement from the Farmers’ Association was misinterpreted. To be clear: Our demand from December remains: We will not accept a gradual phase-out of agricultural diesel either. In January, we emphasized in an open letter to the Chancellor that we were pushing for agricultural diesel. We are always ready to talk. But then the federal government would have to come up with an offer with exactly the same tax relief effect. That is not the case. In this respect the situation is the same.

According to your mission statement, as Farmers President you represent “agriculture in its entirety.” A claim to sole representation? What about the other associations? The German Farmers’ Association is the strong representation of the interests of German agriculture, we are the umbrella organization of 18 state farmers’ associations, we have a level of organization among farmers of around ninety percent in the old federal states, membership in the district association or state association is voluntary. The level of organization is lower in the new federal states. There are also large agricultural companies there that are supported by stakeholders and are not members of us.

How do you feel about the “Land creates connection” initiative, which continues to call for blockades in Saxony, for example? Other associations such as the LSV were involved in the two large demonstrations in Berlin and numerous local actions.

The LSV is considered more radical than the farmers’ association. How do you differentiate yourself? We are a democratic association that is organized from the bottom up. This means that we work together to develop our positions in the German Farmers’ Association. When the discussion process is completed and decided, then this is the position that we will represent from the local level all the way to Brussels.

Is the impression that the initial unity of the farmers’ representatives is shattered? There are as few “farmers” as there are journalists or teachers. Our common positions against the austerity plans still exist.

What is your relationship with Anthony Lee, spokesman for the LSV and farmer influencer, who stands for the radicalization of the protests? I have been given the confidence to represent the German Farmers’ Association as President. My contact persons are the vice president, the other state farmer presidents and the delegates. These are my sparring partners, where we exchange ideas and work out our position.

As a long-time association official, you are used to negotiating compromises with politicians. How difficult is it to get angry farmers to compromise? In the end, it’s the result that counts. We have achieved a lot, but it is still not enough. We prevented the introduction of taxes on agricultural machinery and the immediate phase-out of agricultural diesel.

What could a compromise look like? The crucial thing is agricultural diesel, the discussion about it is ongoing, we will raise this topic again and again over the next year and a half. Priority one is that the agricultural diesel refund continues.

So it’s business as usual – but that’s not a compromise. We’ll continue to be tough on agricultural diesel – we’ll have to stay tough. Otherwise, farmers will in future bear a tax burden of around 50 cents per liter of diesel. If a farmer processes 20,000 liters of diesel a year, the tax burden is 10,000 euros more than, for example, a Belgian colleague. This no longer has anything to do with equal opportunities for farmers in Europe.

Some farmers say they are more bothered by the bureaucracy and less by the diesel costs; 15,000 euros a year wouldn’t kill them. Is the fight for the continued existence of agricultural diesel primarily symbolic politics? Aren’t they killing you? A higher tax burden of 15,000 euros is a competitive disadvantage of 15,000 euros per year. A business manager who is oriented towards business administration does not make such a statement.

From the beginning, the farmers’ protests were suspected of being infiltrated by right-wing extremists and used as a platform. In December you declared: “Right-wing extremist groups, conspiracy theorists and other radicals have no place here.” How successful was your demarcation? Absolutely successful. There were no incidents at our demonstrations – which were registered and approved. Right-wing extremists have occasionally tried to infiltrate them. Our people sent them away because they were not wanted there. Our events ran absolutely smoothly. We stand by the constitution, the basic law. We are convinced Democrats. It was about representing our interests.

Recently, the protests in Biberach escalated and the Greens canceled their political Ash Wednesday. To what extent do you feel responsible for this? The Biberach-Sigmaringen Farmers’ Association had already made it clear the weekend before that it would not take part in this campaign and was planning a conversation with Federal Agriculture Minister Özdemir and other representatives of the Greens on the same day. This exchange with several farmers’ associations in the Biberach district office then took place.

In December they threatened a protest “the likes of which the country has never experienced.” Is it possible that this announcement has encouraged some people to hit the wall? It was a risk, even for me personally, to lead the protests. We managed to ensure that these protests were regulated and peaceful. Over a thousand demonstrations across the country, hundreds of thousands of participants – this hasn’t happened since reunification. And in this respect we have also implemented what I said –  based on our legal system.

According to Biberach, the police union called for a ban on tractors at demos. How do you see this? I don’t see any need for action. We carried out our demonstrations properly in consultation with the police. We had intensive contact with the organizers on site and provided information on the legal situation or how, for example, the emergency lanes should be kept clear. The chairman of the police union confirmed to us that the cooperation works very well. We also have this feedback from fire departments and rescue services. We use our tractors to express our peaceful protest.

Where are the protests going? Should we expect that they will continue to escalate? We are currently campaigning and talking to politicians. We still reserve the right to take one or another action.

Initially, surveys showed up to 80 percent support for farmers’ concerns. How high do you estimate the public’s approval now? We had very high approval, up to 90 percent in rural areas. This is certainly due to the peaceful demonstrations on the one hand, but also to the fact that a high proportion of the population knows how important farming families are for rural areas and for food security in an increasingly fragile world. We must not gamble away this trust.

Where does the anger of the farmers go when they see their demands not being met? We are in a discussion process and I hope that politicians will still make offers. If there is no solution for agricultural diesel, the issue will continue to concern us because it represents a significant competitive disadvantage.

What is your personal relationship with Cem Özdemir, whom you also meet on several boards of directors. Has it changed because of the farmers’ protests?No. We treat each other professionally, fairly and trustingly. For example, the last exchange took place on Friday afternoon.

The Greens are now arming their events with more security and police. Have the excesses of farmer demonstrations damaged democratic culture? Again: Our demonstrations, i.e. those from the German Farmers’ Association, were peaceful. The farmers have shown across the board that they are at the political center of this society and are firmly anchored in democracy.

You have been the farmers’ president for 12 years and elections are coming up this year. Will you compete again? I hope I don’t give the impression that I’m tired of my job. I still have. enough energy. In addition: There are enough exciting challenges at the moment.