When a Schnitzel with chips is ordered anywhere in Germany, it is highly likely that the meat and the potatoes were produced in Niedersachsen. This example alone underscores the extraordinary importance of the food industry in Niedersachsen. In this state, bordered by the Ems and Elbe rivers, it is the second most important business sector in the manufacturing industry behind the automobile industry. The food industry includes meat and cold cut producers, dairies, baked goods manufacturers, mills, confectionery and beverage manufacturers and sugar factories. More than half of these companies in Niedersachsen still have a small-scale craftsman-like nature. The food industry also includes 20 of the 100 companies in the state with the highest sales. Among them are such well-known names as Berentzen, Bahlsen, Jägermeister, Rügenwalder Mühle and Wiesenhof, just to name a few.
In total, the food manufacturing industry in Niedersachsen includes 700 companies (with 20 or more employees) with a total of 67,000 employees. That represents an eighth of all companies and over ten per cent of all employees in the sector in Germany. With a turnover of more than 26 billion euros, the sector achieved considerably higher revenues than the mechanical engineering, chemical or electronics industries in Niedersachsen in 2009. Twenty per cent of the food produced in Niedersachsen is exported: overseas turnover amounts to nearly five billion euros and is steadily increasing. Providing advice on exports is therefore currently one of the core focuses of the work of Niedersachsen’s state government and in particular the marketing company for agriculture and the food industry in Niedersachsen it has created.
Food producers from Niedersachsen are regularly among the best represented at leading national and international trade fairs in the sector, compared to those from other German states.
Niedersachsen is the leader in Germany in terms of agricultural production: one third of all pigs and about half of German poultry is raised here, half of the German potato harvest comes from Niedersachsen, and every third chicken egg is laid somewhere between the Ems and Elbe rivers. The core business area of the food industry in Niedersachsen is the meat industry. Nearly 15 million pigs and 425,000 cattle were slaughtered in Niedersachsen in 2007. Annual turnover amounted to more than 8.1 billion euros in 2009, of which nearly 1.5 billion was achieved from exports. The regional centre for meat processing has traditionally been the southern Weser-Ems region, in the Cloppenburg and Vechta districts. The dairy industry is the second pillar of the food industry in Niedersachsen. In total, there are 35 dairy operations spread across Niedersachsen. The amount of milk delivered to the dairies was nearly five million tonnes in 2009. That is nearly a fifth of all the milk produced in Germany. In the same period, the turnover of the dairy processors totalled approximately 3.1 billion euros, of which 23.5 per cent was generated abroad.
Leading the way in the processing of vegetable raw materials in Niedersachsen is the potato. Nearly half of the potatoes harvested in Germany come from Niedersachsen. The processing industry produces potato starch, dumpling flour, mashed potato powder, potato soup powder and a variety of frozen food products. The largest source of revenue by far is chips, although grain milling also plays an important role. The second largest milling location in Germany features more than 20 mills with a milling output of more than 500 tonnes per year.
Efficient vegetable farms often cultivate several hundred hectares of open space and have specialised in just a few crops. They supply the largest trade chains either directly or through producer organisations. One of the most important of these is the Gartenbauzentrale e. G. in Papenburg. The region around the small Emsland town of Papenburg is by far the most important supplier of potted herbs and the most important provider of cucumbers in Germany. The importance of the Emsland for vegetables and herbs is matched by that of the “Altes Land” for apples, cherries and other types of fruit: nearly 30 per cent of the German apple harvest in recent years has been picked in the region around the Lower Elbe River. Fishing and fish processing also continue to be tremendously important. The focus is on cutter and coastal fishing. The small deep-sea and coastal fishing fleets landed 43,000 tonnes of fresh fish, shrimps and mussels in 2009. Distant water fishing consists of three universal freezer ships, which generally sell their catch on international markets. National fish and fine food companies, including Appel Feinkost GmbH & Co. KG and Pickenpack Hussmann & Hahn Seafood GmbH, have had production facilities on the coast and inland for many years.
Organic food industry. The organic food industry is enjoying huge growth. Since 2000, the number of companies processing organic foods in Niedersachsen has tripled. At the beginning of 2010, there were 1,061 organic processing companies registered. Nearly one-third of them are farm processors, which were often established within an agricultural operation, for example farm bakeries, farm cheese dairies or farm slaughter houses. In addition, there are a large number of small-scale processing companies such as bakers and butchers and countless medium-sized processing companies such as Bauck GmbH & Co. KG, the fruit juice producer Voelkel GmbH, Bohlsener Mühle, Ulrich Walter GmbH and Allos GmbH.
Hub in the heart of Europe. The geographic location in combination with the excellent transport connection and logistical expertise makes Niedersachsen a business location in a class of its own. The food industry also benefits from the state’s hub function in the heart of Europe. Along with the export markets in Eastern Europe and the extensive exchange with the Benelux countries, companies from Niedersachsen can take advantage of affluent potential consumers directly on their doorstep: Hamburg and Bremen are neighbours, North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest metropolitan area in Europe, with potential demand to match, is within easy reach.
Exemplary food clusters. A structural advantage compared to many competitors in Europe is the intensive cooperation between agriculture and the food industry. All across the state, production centres have been created in which all manufacturing and market segments, from farming all the way to the point of sale, have been networked. Examples include meat processing in the southern Weser-Ems region or the milling sector in the region around Hannover/Braunschweig. The food industry also receives support from organisations, associations, research institutions and universities. They provide expertise or future-oriented training. Cluster formation in Niedersachsen sets a real example for other economic areas.
Foodstuffs not only have a history in Niedersachsen, they are at home here. The conditions are ideal to ensure that the sector will continue to write success stories in the future. However, internationalisation and the focus on exports provide real challenges. Concerning the major trends in nutrition, such as convenience food and functional food and the ever-changing demands on product quality, companies in Niedersachsen are not only well-equipped; in many instances they are among the best in the world.
At the top around the world, at home in the region is documented by the “Culinary Niedersachsen” competition held since 2010, in which nearly 200 companies and their best products have so far participated. Niedersachsen is the only state with “Culinary Ambassadors”. This label is awarded annually for the sector’s top products by the Marketinggesellschaft der niedersächsischen Land- und Ernährungswirtschaft. It is also increasingly regarded as a sign of excellence in the trade sector. Everything therefore seems to indicate that foodstuffs from Niedersachsen will be enthusiastically received by a growing number of customers around the world in the coming years.
The author is CEO of the agricultural marketing company of Niedersachsen. Since 2005, he has been a member of the German parliament, representing the Cloppenburg-Vechta constituency. In 2011, he was elected as chairman of the working group food, agriculture and consumer protection of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. He lives on his farm in Garthe, in the district of Cloppenburg.