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Swiss farmers demand more money

The Swiss Farmers' Union has called on the government for more cash to keep farmers from deserting the land because they cannot make ends meet.

Survival for many farmers in Switzerland is becoming impossible, according to the union, which says some have to get by on annual incomes of just SFr30,500 ($18.800).

They blame part of the problem on globalisation - which means cheaper imports of agricultural products - and the misallocation of public funds.

The Farmers' Union on Tuesday asked the government for a direct subsidy of SFr50 per hectre, and said it should use up all funds designated to support agriculture to help ease the farmers' lot.

Of the SFr14 billion budgeted for 2000 to 2003, SFr90 million has not been used.

"From the Swiss government we're asking that the public finances which are already designated for agriculture are really used. And from our partners in the market, we're demanding that they offer fair prices for Swiss farmers' products," Roland Furrer of the Swiss Farmers' Union told swissinfo.

Forced to quit

Low incomes and falling prices for goods like milk are driving farmers out of business, Furrer said.

Katrin Marti whose farm is in the village of Vogelsang testified to the fact that farming life was becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible. "In the past ten years, five or maybe ten farmers in the neighbouring villages have given up completely and we are one of two farmers left here."

In 2000, the percentage of the Swiss workforce in agriculture dropped to 4,2 from 4,8 per cent four years earlier.

In a bid to ease the plight of the worst affected farmers in Alpine regions, the government last week announced that they would receive an additional SFr63 million.

Family tradition

The Swiss Farmers' Union also discussed the fate of the family tradition of farming with the agriculture ministry. Attracted by the relative stability of a nine-to-five job, many youngsters are abandoning the family tradition and heading to the towns and cities.

"Agriculture in Switzerland is still very much based on families, a structure that is in danger if the trend continues in this way," Furrer said. "We think it's valuable to maintain this family structure in the remote Alpine areas for instance."

Globalisation

In the long term, the Farmers' Union is asking that the next government package be equal to the previous one and in line with price rises.

However, it is debatable what impact such government measures would have in the face of globalisation. "If you talk about globalisation, one key issue is the World Trade Organisation (WTO)," Furrer noted.

The Farmers' Union has asked the government to defend the special structures of Swiss agriculture in negotiations with the WTO as well as keep in mind that in their view, globalisation is not considered the only good way to overhaul Swiss agriculture.

Self-help

If consumers are to buy Swiss farmers' products, Furrer recognises that farmers have got to orientate themselves to the market.

"I think if you look at our farmers, they are very well aware that they have to adapt themselves to the demands of consumers and the markets. And we think they have done their job quite well," he said.

There is a certain amount of pragmatism among farmers about their dwindling numbers. But they are committed to getting the government to support their plan of action to maintain a healthy agriculture sector that is based on family structures."

by Samantha Tonkin and Imogen Foulkes

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