Swiss farmers have expressed concern about an agreement reached at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to cut agricultural subsidies.
More than a quarter of the country’s farms have shut down over the past ten years, and those that remain are being forced to find new ways of staying in business.
The Swiss delegation at the Geneva-based WTO said everything possible had been done to defend the interests of the country’s farmers during last week’s talks.
But the Federal Agriculture Office is warning that the country’s farmers will need to become more innovative in the way they market their products if they are to stay in business.
“The pressure on subsidies has been going on for ten years and agricultural prices in Switzerland are now 30 per cent lower than a decade ago,” said the office’s vice-director, Eduard Hofer.
There are 67,000 farms in Switzerland today, and the government says that over the past five years they have been closing at a rate of up to three per cent a year.
Hofer said the biggest challenge would be to persuade those farmers who are struggling to survive on government subsidies to adapt to the demands of a liberal agricultural market.
“For years the markets were very protected and farmers were not forced to become entrepreneurs,” Hofer told swissinfo.
“But it’s pleasing to see that many have been looking for new ways to survive with [the reality of] lower prices.”
A recent survey by Swiss business newspaper “Cash” found that a growing number of farmers were supplementing their income by setting up alternative businesses.
While some have turned their farms into guesthouses, others are discovering that there is additional money to be made from opening restaurants or local shops selling organic fruit and vegetables.
Dairy farmer Lina Rieder from canton Bern told swissinfo that it was no longer enough to sit back and wait for support from the government.
For the past 18 months she has been generating much-needed extra cash by producing a range of ice cream at her farmhouse in Gurtenbrunnen (see video).
“Farmers have to be flexible and find something new to offer, above all something that customers want,” she said.
“We can’t just keep producing and producing like we did 20 years ago. We have to look for new things and adapt old ideas on our farms.”
Diversify to survive
Hofer welcomes the fact that an increasing number of farmers are diversifying to survive, but he cautions that not all those who work in agriculture have the ability or energy to transform their businesses.
“Young people who go into farming today know what they can expect from the future and are ready to take on the challenge of becoming entrepreneurs,” he said.
“But the big problem is the large number of farmers who are currently 40 or 50 years old. They took over farms 20 years ago when the future looked much brighter and they certainly didn’t expect to have to make such major adjustments.”
The federal authorities hope that farmers who lack the necessary entrepreneurial skills will benefit from a six-year, government-funded programme known as InoVagri.
“The aim [of the programme] is to foster innovation and to work out what expertise farmers need to be successful in business,” said project researcher Christian Buser.
“They need coaching in things like drawing up business plans, but what’s certain is that many are not short of ideas.”
swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
According to the Federal Agriculture Office, between 1990 and 2000 a total of 22,278 farms closed down in Switzerland.
Between 2000 and 2002 the total number of farms in Switzerland fell by 3,116, which represents a 2.2% decline per year.
The office estimates that farms will continue to close at a rate of up to 3% per year.