Women farmers caught between law and tradition
Many Swiss women don't have legal rights to the farms they live and work on (Keystone)
Today’s Swiss woman in agriculture is often challenged by a lack of access to retirement income or a legal share of her farm, a study reveals. Her time is also in high demand, since outside work is often needed to make ends meet.
The study, released by the Federal Agriculture Office, reveals these realities and others about the modern women working in the agricultural sector.
While two-thirds of respondents say they are generally satisfied with their lives and work – up 15 per cent from a similar study done ten years ago – the clash between tradition and modern realities continues to pose unique challenges.
“In the future, there should not be any women farmers who are not legally a part of their farm,” said Maya Graf, a parliamentarian and farmer from canton Basel Country who helped launch the study, after it was revealed that more than a third of women polled said they were not legally part-owners of the farms they work on.
Often, this is for traditional reasons because Swiss farms tend to be passed down over generations to the male heir.
Although women can legally become part-owners of their farms if their partners are in agreement and can receive farms passed down to them by family members, many do not because of complicated family issues or because they believe their partnership is already established enough.
Tradition versus legal rights
However, the consequences of non-ownership can be catastrophic, said Christine Bühler, the president of the Swiss Women Farmers’ Association.
In the case of divorce or the death of her husband, a woman who is not on the books as part-owner of her farm is not entitled to any part of the enterprise.
“That’s my biggest cause,” Bühler said. “Women need to realise [their legal vulnerability] when things are going well and when they can talk with their husbands, because in case of a problem, it’s already too late.”
Women who work on a farm but don’t legally pull in a salary of their own are also not entitled to all of their retirement income under the three-tier Swiss pension system, also putting them at risk in case of a separation from their husbands.
According to the Federal Agriculture Office study, every ninth woman has nothing at all to fall back on in terms of income and retirement savings if she loses her husband and farming partner.
Gabriele Burn, a manager at Raiffeisen Bank which often finances Swiss farms, tells all women farmers to let themselves be hired and evaluated at their jobs, even if it’s by their husbands. That way, she says, they can fairly determine their financial contribution and legally set it apart from the rest of the household income.
Other proposed reform methods include making a financial checklist to ensure the woman’s contribution to the farm is set aside, listing the woman’s income separately on all legal forms and even changing what is taught to men at agricultural schools so they know how to list their wives as legal employees on their farms.
Jacques Bourgeois, director of the Swiss Farmers’ Association, says embracing all of these methods and structures could benefit farm families in future, but he stops short of advocating that any of them be made law.
“We should give each couple the flexibility to decide themselves how they want to approach the situation,” he said.
The study also shows that 47 per cent of women farmers work outside the farm, three per cent more than ten years ago. More than half of those who work elsewhere cite financial concerns as the main reason, although nearly as many say contact with other people and satisfying work are their primary influences.
Bühler and Graf see working outside the home as part of a sea change taking place across the Swiss agricultural landscape – nearly two-thirds of male farmers also have a job elsewhere. However, Graf warns that if women aren’t careful in dividing roles, the extra work at home will fall on them.
“It’s important that amid that change, the work on the farm doesn’t just fall on the woman, but that she discusses with her partner who will do the housework and take care of the children,” she said.
While the vast majority of women in agriculture are farmers’ partners, helping out on the farm in various domains, four per cent of women polled in the study said they managed a farm by themselves and three per cent said they attended school to run their own farms.
At the Strickhof agriculture school outside Winterthur, there are five women in a mostly male agriculture class who are learning to run their own farms. They say they are attracted to farming because of its multi-faceted nature, allowing them to do one thing one day and something completely different the next.
“People often say being a farmer is really physical work, but that’s just one skill of many that you have to have,” said one woman in the class.
“Although women might have to ask for help to hook up a heavy machine, many male farmers have had to ask a woman who is calm and good with animals to help them deal with a particularly stubborn cow.”
While they are certain in their career choice, however, these women are less certain what their futures hold in store.
Only one of the five has a farm she can take over from her parents – the rest plan to “wait and see”. Often that means marrying into a farming enterprise, less often it may mean coming up with creative ways to farm through extended partnerships or collectives.
Heidi Bättig, a farmer from canton Lucerne who took over her family’s farm, says she and her partner currently run both his and her family farms together. The future, she says, is uncertain, but she knows she wants to hold on to what she has built up.
“There was the feeling that, since I didn’t have a brother, the farm would die out because there was no one to take over,” she said.
“Now there is someone, and I don’t want to just turn the farm over to my partner. Although I think many people would be happy if things turned out that way.”