From Geography to Broiler Farms


Like most young people graduating from high school, I had very ambitious ideas. My plan was to pick up some skills that would qualify me as a powerful advocate for nature and God's nonhuman creatures. Thus, I went into jurisprudence. However, after finishing my undergraduate studies, I realised that studying law and discussing legislative subclauses wasn't quite what I had had in mind when I started out. I wanted to do something more practical, something that would take me closer to my actual field of interest: environmental protection and animal welfare.

During an internship with the local administration of my hometown Limburg (Hessen, Germany), I had the chance to talk to a couple of people working in environment-related jobs. This encouraged me to think over the prevailing direction of my career and to change its course a little bit. I decided to study physical geography as my new major subject and to keep law as a minor. The reason I chose geography was that this subject encompasses a wide range of different topics, including vegetation and botany, geomorphology and soil science, climatology, and so on. Thus, it allows you to keep a broad view of things instead of limiting your focus to just one narrow field of research. Later on, this turned out to be an important qualification for successfully working in an interdisciplinary research team, which was my first assignment after I graduated from university.

As a member of my university's geographic society, I had the opportunity to listen to a number of scientists who had managed to turn their hobby of travelling to foreign countries, and getting to know all different types of landscapes and people, into a profession. This appealed to me quite strongly and provoked another slight shift in my career path. I decided to take a year abroad to study geography at a foreign university so as to gain the international experience I would need to pursue a scientific career as a geographer. I was accepted at the University of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, Canada. Apart from getting to see and study the Canadian Prairies as well as the Rocky Mountains, this provided me with the opportunity to do a 3-month internship in the Canadian Arctic, working with a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist at the Joint Secretariat of Inuvialuit Renewable Resources (see organisational information here or here), which takes care of native peoples' lands and natural resources in the western Arctic. The latter was a most valuable experience for me. Not only did it allow me to develop my ability to work with GIS, which was quite helpful for my future research, but it also gave me firsthand insights into the unique lifestyle and specific concerns of native people living in northern Canada.

Returning back home, I was offered the chance to join a binational research project studying the ecology of the upper Dniester catchment area in Western Ukraine, in co-operation with several German and Ukrainian research partners. Here, I had my first scientific contact with agriculture. My job was to map and investigate land use and vegetation types in a small village in the Ukrainian Carpathians that had been part of a kolkhoz (collective farm) before the Ukraine became independent. The villagers were living mainly by means of subsistence farming. Due to a lack of adequate machinery as well as things like synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, the way they were cultivating their fields in many respects came close to what is known as organic farming. Using the results of my work to complete a diploma thesis, I took a first step into that field of research.

The second step followed with my first assignment, which was conducting an interdisciplinary PhD research project at the Federal Agricultural Research Centre ( FAL) in Braunschweig. Our objective was to compare conventional and organic broiler-chicken production systems, considering several aspects such as ecology, product quality, animal welfare, and economy. Our research strategy was to do a field study on 15 broiler farms encompassing conventional intensive-indoor, conventional free-range, and organic free-range production systems.

My research focussed on the ecological aspect. In addition to calculating nutrient and energy balances, I studied the effects of faecal nutrient input into free-range soils. Thus, a lot of my fieldwork took place inside or close to the broiler houses, on the free ranges. Assisting our veterinarian in her examinations, I also had close contact with our objects of investigation, the broiler chickens themselves. Furthermore, we conducted a number of interviews with the farmers in order to collect data for our calculations. Talking to the farmers who had chosen quite different ways of practising agriculture and producing food, I was confronted with very different concepts of farming in general. On the one end of two extremes, there is the modern farmer who specialises in just one or two farming branches, such as broiler production and grain cultivation, which provides enough income to sustain a family and to realize a lifestyle that is not below that of an average German citizen. The other end is represented by the idealistic organic farmer, whose main goals are to offer living conditions to the animals that allow them to act out their natural behaviour on the one hand, and to practise a sustainable utilisation of resources by closing the nutrient cycles on the farm as far as possible on the other hand. In our study, we encountered all kinds of mixed approaches between these two extremes. One important lesson I learned was that combining goals like animal welfare and sustainable resource utilisation may in some cases lead to unavoidable and even irresolvable conflicts. Adopting a position in favour of one or the other production system requires a very personal decision.

Having finished my PhD work, I'm now in the process of undertaking a second project at the Institute of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science at FAL, working on heavy metal contamination of synthetic and organic fertilisers. Looking back on these first steps of this scientific career, one could say that they are those of someone who did not know what she wanted to be when she grew up, and who did not always make the one right choice from the start. However, my training as a geographer enabled me to work in a wide variety of fields and prepared me well for doing research in interdisciplinary projects, because this type of research in particular requires people who are trained to keep a broad view of things. This is what I'm doing now, and I would like to encourage any people who are not quite happy with the actual direction of their career to rethink their way and try out a new one--it's never too late!

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