Alpine farmers threatened with extinction
Competition and tighter regulations are putting the squeeze on alpine farmers, whose numbers have declined by a fifth in the past ten years.
An international conference underway in the Bernese Oberland resort of Lenk is highlighting the importance of alpine farms to man and environment.
Alpine farmers are confronted with sinking prices for their products, and they are having to adapt to new regulations, which require them to invest more money in their farms and to change their ways of working.
"Many cannot afford to make these investments," says agriculture specialist, Christine Rudmann, who is presenting a study on the state of alpine farming to the conference.
Her findings make sober reading: "Milk production is no longer profitable because of falling prices and the high cost of transporting the milk down to the valley. The large cows used to produce high quantities of milk are not suitable for steep alpine meadows.
"Federal farm subsidies introduced in the middle of the 1990s and paid directly to farmers have not made up for the shortfall."
The bleak picture has also made it difficult for farmers to convince their children to take over their operations. Many of the people enrolled at Switzerland's alpine farming schools have no background in agriculture and many come from abroad, drawn by the prospect of spending a summer or two in the Swiss Alps.
"The situation is similar across the Alps," Rudmann told swissinfo. "In France, whole valleys have been depopulated."
Glimmer of hope
To stay in business, many farmers are switching to organic farming, which commands higher prices.
The federal government has approved a series of measures to support organic farming (many alpine farms by their very nature are organic). It is also planning to help farmers with a proposed increase of subsidies by 1.5 per cent and showing more flexibility in its dairy regulations.
Rudmann also says alpine communities have to become better at marketing their products and services locally since they cannot compete in the global market place.
The Swiss economics ministry together with the Federal Office for the Environment has already come to this conclusion and earlier this year proposed creating labels for rural regions in the Alps, which would be supported with federal funds.
The "nature" or "landscape" park label would be awarded to regions meeting certain sustainable development criteria. If everything goes according to plan, the labels will attract more tourists to these isolated regions and would allow alpine farmers, who attach the label to their products, to sell directly to the consumer.
Also highlighted in Rudmann's study is the social and environmental contribution made by alpine farmers, but she says it is hard to put a monetary value on this work.
They tend alpine meadows, increasing flora and therefore biodiversity, and they are often the only foresters, ensuring the health of mountain forests which act as natural barriers against landslides and avalanches.
by Dale Bechtel
Large cows used to produce high quantities of milk are not suitable for steep alpine meadows.
Many farmers are switching to organic farming in order to survive.
The government wants to increase subsidies by 1.5 per cent.
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