Piping hot Swiss braided breads come out of the oven one by one, perfectly formed and baked to a golden brown. The women making them are not at home, but in a classroom at a school where they are learning how to be proper farmers’ partners.
At the same time, another group of women works in a greenhouse, carefully measuring the distance between furrows and dropping seeds into the soil one by one as they learn to plant a winter garden.
Later, they will learn how to keep track of expenses and write invoices to the businesses that buy their wares.
Their classroom at the Strickhof agriculture school near Winterthur is a kitchen, a garden and an office all in one, teaching the skills that it says today’s Swiss woman wanting to be part of a farming enterprise needs to know. There are lectures on canning, baking, gardening, cleaning, bookkeeping, agricultural politics and communicating, among other subjects.
Barbara von Werra, who helps run the farmers’ partner programme at the Strickhof, says that in the last ten years, the school’s curriculum has shifted to focus more on administrative, business and political issues, in addition to the traditional household and family skills.
The women involved in the programme come from many backgrounds and walks of life – some are young, unmarried and have yet to find a partner to farm with, while others worked for years in a different career before joining a farming enterprise.
Forty-four year old Bettina Grueter-Lüttich worked in the information technology sector for 20 years before marrying her farmer husband two years ago and joining him on their farm in the canton of Zurich. Now, she is responsible for keeping the house, cooking for farm workers, helping to look after animals, harvesting crops and raising their one-and-a-half year old daughter.
“After having my daughter I stopped working,” Grueter-Lüttich says. “I thought I still wanted to do something as a career, though, and then I thought it was a good time to do a complete transition into something other than IT. Then I learned about the farmers’ partner school and the fact that you can do it part time, one day a week so I can organise things well with my daughter’s care.”
Grueter-Lüttich says some of the skills taught at the school are redundant for her, since she has been keeping house for herself for more than two decades.
“To some extent the instruction is very detailed, down to how you vacuum and clean a bathroom, and sometimes I thought, I do that at home already,” she tells swissinfo.ch.
“That’s kind of an issue because we students range in age from 20 to 50, some are already grandmothers and others have maybe not even left home yet.”
Still, Grueter-Lüttich has found many aspects of the curriculum helpful. For example, she says she gets new recipe ideas and new perspectives on how to run a household more efficiently.
When asked whether she finds the idea of learning to be a farmer’s wife outdated or in some way demeaning to women, Grueter-Lüttich looks a bit perplexed at the question, then says no – she views it as practical training that makes perfect sense for people in her situation.
“I don’t think it’s old-fashioned,” she says. “There are of course certain subjects like cooking and cleaning that you already know how to do, but then there are new ideas, like which washing powder am I actually using and what would make sense from ecological and economic perspectives.”
“Some students find some things unnecessary that others find very interesting, you just have to take from it what’s useful for you and what you can use at home.”
Another aspect Grueter-Lüttich appreciates has to do with maintaining family ties and relationships, an essential part of running a family farm. The “family and community” curriculum teaches women how to manage tricky relationships, talk effectively to family members and keep the business running even when personal ties are strained.
“It hits home for me, learning how to operate in a family when I am new in it, operating on a farm that has many different generations living on it, how you become a part of it and work with others,” she says. “There’s also a lot of potential for conflict.”
The school’s von Werra says learning from one another’s experiences and building lasting friendships is a big part of why women enrol.
“For us as an educating institution, the challenges are, on the one hand, offering the newest and most relevant curriculum and, on the other hand, offering students an opportunity to build up a network where they can meet without having to organise something for themselves,” von Werra says.
“Because imagine, they are somewhere out on a farm and they are geographically a bit cut off from the world, so this course has a lot to offer them in terms of getting to know people in similar situations.”
She adds that communication skills and awareness of real-world issues related to agriculture are also important skills that the school tries to build.
“We want to allow women to discuss these issues eye-to-eye with their partners on the farm,” von Werra says.
“That means being aware of legal issues, understanding agricultural politics in Switzerland, the visions for the future of Swiss agriculture, so they have a knowledge base and aren’t reduced to being dependent on their partners for that knowledge and only looking after children and the house.”
“Tradition is good,” von Werra says. “The question
is always striking a balance between traditions and new ways of doing things.”
Training farmers’ partners at the Strickhof
The Strickhof agricultural school in canton Zurich is one of Switzerland’s largest agricultural education centres. It operates numerous programmes, including a school for farmers’ partners in a village above Winterthur.
The Strickhof offers women who want to attend the farmers’ partner school two options: they can attend class one day a week and earn a diploma in two years, or they can attend full-time from February to July and finish the course in that timeframe. Older women with established farms tend to choose the former option, younger women just starting their careers the latter.
The school only accepts applicants who have already earned a baccalaureate diploma or who have already done an apprenticeship.
According to Barbara von Werra, who helps run the school, there are more applicants for the programme today than there are available spots.
Although enrollment waned a bit in the middle of the decade, today it is stronger than ever, partially because several smaller farmers’ partner schools closed, driving more applicants toward larger programmes like Strickhof and Inforama, which is based in Bern.
By Veronica DeVore in Winterthur, swissinfo.ch