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Nearly a third of Swiss farms face closure

The number of farms in Switzerland has been falling steadily for some time Keystone Archive

The federal office for agriculture says around 30 per cent of Switzerland's farms are not making enough money to survive.

The predictions come in the department’s newly published report on the state of Switzerland’s agricultural sector for the year 2001.

The figures make depressing reading for Switzerland’s mountain farmers in particular, many of whom have struggled for years to make ends meet.

But Swiss farmers already receive fairly generous direct subsidies from the government, and Manfred Bötsch, director of the office for agriculture, says more money to help farmers continue is out of the question.

Farm spending

“The fact is Switzerland already spends more on farming than it does on education,” Boetsch told swissinfo. “So although the farmers do enjoy a great deal of public support, it would be hard to justify any more taxpayers’ money for them.”

Instead, the office for agriculture is encouraging farmers to look at alternative ways of generating income, from tourism activities, to care of socially deprived children, or elderly people.

“These are long term solutions,” explained Boetsch, “The challenge is to make sure that in the short term, the social damage to farming communities is not too great.”

Constitutional protection

Agriculture has traditionally been one of the pillars of Swiss society; in rural communities dairy farming is frequently the mainstay of the local economy.

In the first half of the 20th century, supplying enough food for the Swiss population was the farmers’ primary role; the two world wars made self-sufficiency especially important.

But in more recent years the farmers’ role has been reformulated; in 1996 Swiss voters approved a constitutional amendment that gives agriculture a multifunctional role.

This means that farming not only guarantees the supply of food, but also is valued for its cultural and environmental role. The function of the farm is not just to produce food, but also to care for the landscape and to assure the preservation of rural communities.

But although these goals give farmers more flexibility, free trade agreements, cheaper imported food, and stricter laws governing animal welfare and the environment have combined to put many farms in financial difficulty.

The number of farms in Switzerland has in fact been falling steadily for some time. At the start of the 20th century there were around 200,000 farmers; now, there are around 60,000.

While farm workers represented 31 per cent of the Swiss labour force in 1900, today, they represent just four per cent.

This small minority, however, oversees about 40 per cent of Switzerland’s landmass.

Sinking milk price

Kurt Wyss continues to run his farm in the Emmental, as his father and grandfather did before him, but he has doubts about how long he can survive.

The cutbacks in the amount of Emmentaler cheese produced have made it more difficult for Wyss to sell his milk.

“I’m very worried about the situation with Emmentaler,” Wyss told swissinfo. “Our local cheesemaker has reduced by 30 per cent, and our milk price is only 75 centimes a litre now. Five years ago we were getting one franc 10 per litre.”

“If the price falls any further,” Wyss continued, “then our costs just won’t be covered any more.”

Expensive improvements

The falling milk price is not Wyss’s only worry. He also keeps pigs for meat production, but their 20 year old sty is now too small and too dark to meet modern regulations.

“I’m required to change it by the end of this year,” said Wyss. “But I don’t know where the money is going to come from. If I improved everything I’m supposed to improve it would cost around SFr200,000.”

Manfred Boetsch at the federal office for agriculture is sympathetic to these problems, but points out that Switzerland’s environmental emphasis on farming policy is the envy of the European Union.

“We are really the European leaders in this field,” he explained. “The other countries are looking at what we do, and following a lot of our examples.”

Problems now, solutions tomorrow

Kurt Wyss doesn’t disagree with policies that will improve the quality of life for his animals, or protect the environment. But, he points out, they don’t solve the more pressing problem — for him at least — of how to keep his farm going.

“I would happily consider other kinds of work,” he said. “I’d be interested in showing tourists around the Emmental, for example. But I don’t want to give up my farm.”

Wyss has a 10-month-old son, and his dream is to pass the family farm on to him. But he realizes it may be only a dream.

“My neighbour told me he’s already regretting encouraging his son to carry on with the farm,” he said. “So I really don’t know what will happen with my son. But of course I hope he will farm this land too. That’s what all of us around here want, to keep our land and to carry on farming.”

Part-time jobs

An hour’s drive away in the Simmental, farmer Arthur Müller runs a small dairy farm.

“My farm is too small for us to live off it,” Müller told swissinfo. “So I work 70 per cent as a carpenter as well. “

Combining jobs in this way takes a lot of time and energy; Müller has to get up early in the morning to make sure his cows are milked and fed, before going off to work. And at the end of the day, the milking and feeding has to be done all over again.

Müller’s wife also has a part-time job, and the couple have three children. Their situation is not unusual though; many farming families now take on other jobs in order to make ends meet, and it is a situation which worries the Swiss Farmers’Union.

“It’s not that we disagree with the office of agriculture,” explained Heidi Bravo, who is the union’s international officer. “We accept that some farms will have to close or merge, or do something else. But in the short term we are very worried that many farming families, and especially farmers’ wives, will become overburdened with work.”

Gradual change

Bravo believes the real issue is not whether farming in Switzerland should change, but the pace of the change.

“It’s a process,” she told swissinfo. “If you do something the way your mother and grandmother did it, then perhaps you will change a little bit, and then your children will change a bit more.”

“So the point is to take things slowly, and look at all the different solutions,” she continued. “Some farmers will give up and do something else, others will get involved in tourism. Some may join together to share resources, while others still will go into the speciality produce or organic market.”

“Change has to come,” said Bravo, “but I’m not pessimistic. Our constitution says we should have farms all over the country, and I think we will continue to have them – just not exactly the way they are today.”

by Imogen Foulkes

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR