Germans go crazy for S
pargel – white asparagus. They grow it under carefully formed mounds of earth so the production of chlorophyll, which will turn the asparagus green, is prevented. They then cook the resulting pale stalks in a light stock and serve them traditionally with butter sauce, potatoes and ham.
Annually Germans consume over 125,000 tonnes of spargel, but it doesn’t come cheap. A kilo of class one spargel, which is pure white with straight spears, costs over €10 ($11) so it is no wonder that it is known as “white gold.”
Spargelzeit, an eight-week season ending on 24 June, is over, few spare a thought about the seasonal delight – except for farmers. With their fortune riding on a good harvest, they regularly cast a nervous eye to the sky, hoping not to see the dark thunderhead clouds that herald hail. While cold snaps in April may reduce the bounty, a few minutes of hail in summer can be devastating.
“White asparagus is unusual in this regard,” says Peter Buchhierl, CEO of
Münchener und Magdeburger Agrarversicherung, a company specialized in agricultural insurance.* “For most crops, the danger is when the harvest is ripening, but asparagus takes three years to grow and if the ferns are damaged, the effects will come out in the harvest in the years following.”
The path from field to table is fraught by the dangers of extremes of weather. Hail decimates crops, frosts stunt strawberries and vineyards, storms destroy the scaffolding essential for the growth of hops, a basis of the favorite German drink – beer.
For example, strawberries often bloom before the last frosts. If the flower turns black rather than yellow in the center, it means the fruit is totally destroyed. This can amount to far more than a shortage of strawberry cakes on our dining tables in summer, says Peter Buchhierl. “It can mean financial ruin for the farmer. A single day of frost can easily cause €100,000 in damage to a single field.”
ONE WEIRD OLD TRICK
Fortunately, there is one weird old trick to counteract the risks. In centuries past,
farmers often created cooperatives to support each other against the weather disasters involved in farming. This inspired the creation of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank in 1473.
Later, in the US in the 1880s, tobacco farmers in Connecticut first joined together to provide early hail insurance. By 1938, the
Federal Crop Insurance Corporation was established to cover other crop hazards.
Today, crop insurance is found around the world. In India, the
Agriculture Insurance Company, a public sector company, now covers almost 20 million farmers with yield-based and weather-based crop insurance, including against floods and drought.
In Germany, where there is no federal crop insurance, Münchener und Magdeburger Agrarversicherung covers crops of almost every agricultural plant such as strawberry, wine, hops – and the precious spargel – against hail, frost, storms and heavy rains, as well as drought and floods.
“Few other industries are as exposed to the dangers of weather as farming,” says Peter Buchhierl, “yet are as fundamental to the wellbeing of everyone in society.”
When disaster strikes, claim payments can quickly escalate. Typically payouts are in the tens of thousands of euros. Peter Buchhierl says that the highest one paid in recent years was caused by hail that totally destroyed a hop field in Hallertau, an area in the south of Germany which is the largest hop-growing region worldwide. When plants are mature and almost ripe for harvesting, storm damage can be expensive. Compensation payments can easily reach into the hundreds of thousands of euros.
“We cover legal crops,” says Peter Buchhierl, answering about the recent introduction of medical marijuana in Germany. “We insure ‘
Arznei- und Gewürzpflanzen (medical uses) crops, such as St. John’s Wort and marigold. It falls under that.”
* Münchener und Magdeburger Agrarversicherung is an Allianz company