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Swiss farmers seek new roles

Children at risk find a new lease of life at Eggiwil's farms

The crisis in Switzerland's dairy industry is leading many Swiss farmers to look for new ways of earning money while staying on the land.

The community of Eggiwil in the Emmental has launched an innovative scheme creating a partnership between urban and rural areas.

The initiative links city social work departments with Emmental farming families in a project which allows children at risk to be cared for in rural communities.

The project was created by Aspos, an organisation dedicated to promoting new ways for the sustainable development of rural communities.

“We wanted to see if we could encourage farming families to find lost skills or forgotten resources, and then develop them in a way that could stabilise their rural life,” said Susanne Frütig of Aspos.

Struggle for survival

Eggiwil was the perfect candidate for such a project. With only 2,700 inhabitants in an area of 60 square kilometres, the community is one of the most sparsely populated and one of the poorest in Switzerland.

Traditionally the region’s economic strength came from the production of milk and cheese, but lower milk prices and cheaper imports of dairy products have meant that many Emmental families can no longer survive on the income from farming alone.

“The crisis in the dairy industry is a constant worry for families here,” Frütig told swissinfo. “But while some farmers will stop, others are looking for ways to carry on farming while doing something else as well.”

Many rural communities in Switzerland are turning to tourism or environmental projects to generate extra income, and when Aspos first proposed its social project in Eggiwil, there was some reluctance among the local inhabitants.

“Well, yes, there were doubts,” said Frütig. “People were asking us what sort of children would be coming, and the schoolteachers were concerned about having difficult children in the classroom.”

Families carefully selected

The Wüthrich family, however, were not among the doubters; Therese Wüthrich was among the first to volunteer to care for a child.

“I thought this was something I would really like to do,” she said. “I wanted to offer a home and a stable family life to a child who needed one.”

To be selected for the project, Therese and Hans Peter Wüthrich and their three children had to submit to a series of searching questions about their family life and about their reasons for wanting to care for a child from the city.

“I did think at times that the questions were going a bit far,” said Therese. “But I understand why it was necessary.”

Another criteria for selection is that the families must still be earning their main income from farming. The income from caring for a child must not be the difference between staying on the land, and bankruptcy.

“The project wouldn’t work if the host families were completely financially dependant on the child they were caring for,” explained Susanne Frütig.

Michael comes to Eggiwil

The Wüthrich family satisfied all the criteria for the Aspos project and they are now looking after 13-year-old Michael.

They receive SFr2,000 ($1,340) a month for this and have the support of Aspos social worker Urs Kaltenrieder, who can be called at any time, day or night, should there be problems.

“The host families can face difficult situations from time to time,” Kaltenrieder told swissinfo. “The children who come here sometimes have serious developmental disorders.”

In addition, the project has a designated doctor and a psychiatrist who offer support and guidance whenever necessary.

Michael, who is originally from Scotland, arrived in Switzerland two years ago with his mother and sister.

But the new life in Basel did not work, the family unit broke down, and Michael played truant from school. When he was in the classroom he was increasingly aggressive towards other pupils.

“At first I was in a boys’ home in Basel,” he explained, “but I wasn’t happy. Everyone else there was older than me, some of them were taking drugs, so I thought to myself, ‘hey, I want out of here.'”

After long discussions between Michael, his mother and the social work department in Basel, it was agreed to try the Eggiwil project.

“I’d never seen a real farm until I came here,” said Michael, “I couldn’t have imagined a place like this.”

The cost of keeping Michael at the Wüthrich’s is paid for by the Basel authorities. The SFr2,000 a month is less than the cost of keeping him in a boys’ home, but it is enough to allow the Wüthrich’s to continue farming without seeking other work.

“I’m basically a home body,” said Therese Wüthrich. “And I didn’t really want to look for work in town, so this is perfect. And our children want to continue on the farm, so we are determined to carry on here.”

“And Michael is a pleasure to have around,” she continued. “He needs a strong structure to his day and we have to rein him in from time to time, but really he’s a great kid.”

Farm life can be therapeutic

Michael is equally positive about his new life. “I like it here,” he said. “There’s lots of fresh air and animals, and they let me drive a tractor, which is great!”

The contact with farm animals and the peaceful country life are two major plus points for the Eggiwil project.

“Animals can sometimes be worth ten child psychiatrists,” said Urs Kaltenrieder.

“Children who are disturbed or traumatised can establish relationships with animals more easily than they can with people, and these relationships help them get back in touch with the world.”

Farming families in Eggiwil now care for a total of 12 children, and the presence in the community of these extra youngsters has made more than a financial difference. One local school, scheduled for closure because of a lack of pupils, can now remain open.

So successful is the project that it is cited in the Swiss government’s Agricultural Report for 2001. Eggiwil, says the report, “is taking a pioneering role in the area of sustainable development”.

And the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has also praised the project.

Letting go will be hard

But children on the project do not stay in Eggiwil forever. The goal is rather to stabilise them, and, in the best of all possible worlds, to reunite them with their own families.

In Michael’s case, he remains in regular contact with his mother, but will move to a therapeutic residential school for boys in a few months’ time.

Once there, he will continue to stay in touch with his mother, as well as spending regular weekends with the Wüthrich’s, who will go on acting as a carer family.

“I feel at home here,” he said. “It’s good to be in a family, to be with people who actually like me, instead of with people who either ignore me or don’t like me. That’s the experience I’ve had in the past.”

For Therese Wüthrich, the prospect of Michael moving on has become a painful one.

“He’s really become close to our hearts,” she said. “I know we’ll still see him on weekends and for holidays, but still, letting him go will be very hard.”

Imogen Foulkes

The Swiss Federal Department of Agriculture estimates that one-third of Switzerland’s 60,000 farms will close over the next ten years.

The Aspos project in Eggiwil started as an experiment five years ago, but is now so successful that there are plans to expand it into other Emmental communities.

Farming families earn around SFr2,000 ($1,340) a month for caring for a disturbed or at risk child, but the money must not serve as their main source of income.

Twelve children are currently cared for in Eggiwil; their presence in the community has meant that one local school, scheduled for closure because of low pupil numbers, can now remain open.

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