Reichen moves his cows up the alp in springtime, hand-making cheese from the milk, selling part of it in the town shops. Intense competition keeps cheese prices only moderately profitable but Reichen remains unapologetic about the role government plays in his livelihood.
“It is very good for me,” he says as he turns his attention to playing a 10-foot long alphorn traditionally used to serenade others on peaks around the area. Now he plays it mostly to entertain tourists who arrive by cable car at the dairy and small cafe Reichen’s family operates on Allmenalp. There is no road from town.
People come here for the breathtaking view and to watch Reichen make cheese the old-fashioned way.
This is exactly what the Swiss government has in mind when it pays its farmers just to keep on looking like farmers. When tourists think of Switzerland, they think of cows and green spaces. The government’s official policy since 1996 has been to support farmers in order to give the tourists what they expect.
“Without direct payments, forget that scenery. How many people would come to this country and enjoy it without those farmers up there?” says Thomas Maier, director of the main division for direct payments and structures for the Federal Office of Agriculture in Bern.
Payments vary from region to region, however. “The mountain farmer gets 80 percent of his profit from the government. The man on the plain gets 30 percent of his profit from the government,” Maier says.
The Swiss government’s farm support payments amount to about 60 percent of its total agricultural policy expenditures. Farmers are eligible for government payments if they meet minimum environmental standards, and most do.
“Payments are geared to equalize. For organic farming, yield is less, so there you get paid more. Our research station calculates how much farmers should be paid. Our cantons (roughly equivalent to U.S. states) check the farms and penalize farmers not in compliance with lowered payments,” Maier says.
Even with this government largesse, Swiss farm numbers have steadily declined in recent years, averaging about a 2-1/2 percent drop annually through the 1990s. “It is hard work,” Maier explains with a shrug. “It is hard to get women to live on a farm, particularly in the mountain regions. Life on a mountain farm is hard.”
Undoubtedly true. But land here remains a valuable commodity. In fact, it’s priced by the square meter. In places, the price for farmland sells for about the equivalent of $25,000 U.S. per acre, or more.
With a dairy plopped virtually into the middle of the village of Meikrich outside Bern, Hauspeter Salvisberg and his brother make a living for two families by milking 34 cows on 44 hectares of land. Both their spouses work off the farm, however, contributing to the family finances.
The Salvisbergs are part of a 29-farm cooperative making prize-winning, high-demand Emmental cheese from their milk. That makes their milk price relatively high compared to many Swiss farmers. One-fourth of all Swiss milk is exported as cheese and the government pays a supplement to dairy farmers to encourage them to sell milk for cheese production.
Things are going so well, in fact, that the Salvisbergs are planning to vacate their large dairy barn built in 1947 and build a new facility on the edge of the village, nearer their pasture. As it is, they currently walk cattle along the road to pasture each day, and they’re getting tired of it.
The brothers closely watch the U.S. dairy business and use only American and Canadian bulls for their artificial insemination program. One cow arrived on the farm as an embryo from the U.S., and they’re going to increase use of embryo transplant technology to get higher-producing animals in the herd.
But, on the whole, U.S. agricultural policy doesn’t much interest them. “If the U.S. grain price is up or down, for us it’s no problem. We produce our own feed. Actually we sell grain and buy back a mixed ration. We are not in the grain selling business because the price is not enough to make it profitable,” Hauspeter says.
Europe’s foot and mouth disease scare got their attention. “We’ve had no foot and mouth in Switzerland so it has not influenced us personally. But it affected the market for meat production. People here stopped eating meat. They started eating chicken and even ostrich,” he says.
Swiss farmers pay close attention to consumer demands, he says. “Would I vaccinate my cows for foot and mouth? No, because it could be detected in the milk. And 1 percent of the livestock get sick from it. It is also forbidden to use BST on dairy cows here. If BST was declared on milk containers, nobody in Europe would buy it. People are sensitive to things like that. That is why, from my point of view, it is right to say no to genetically modified organisms,” Hauspeter says.
A little more than 4 percent of the Swiss population works on a farm. In 1900, 31 percent did. Average farm size runs about 14 hectares (one hectare equals about 2.5 acres). An average farm in France, by contrast, has 41 hectares. In mountainous Switzerland, only about 40 percent of the land is arable.
The government’s hand is seen in all aspects of agriculture here. At the village of Salgesch in southwestern Switzerland, Beat Kuonen-Jurt, who runs St. Martins Kellerie, a winery, points out that the federal government controls the amount of each grape variety grown along with weight and sugar standards for them. Quality control is the goal rather than high production. That means farms here do not irrigate and use little fertilizer. Every grape variety in the canton has a production guideline that must be met.
“When our market opened up to wines from California, South Africa and Australia, the price went down. So we have to have high quality wines in order to sell. Some farmers here are not quick enough or specialized enough to do it. Most wine growers here are not really professionals,” he says.
Valais canton law here, in contrast to other areas, requires that each heir receive equal parcels of the family land. That means vineyards here are tiny and most owners work regular jobs.
“They’re not putting 100 percent effort into their vineyards. It’s very difficult to deal with someone who is not professional, who doesn’t understand the market. They don’t have to live with it. These are personal, small vineyards. A lot of times it is the older generation, age 50 and up, farming them. And the region is very Catholic. If they’re told to cut half the grapes at a certain stage, they don’t understand because it’s God-given and not to be wasted,” Kunonen-Jurt says.
Outside Basle at the village of Biel-Benken, so close to France he can see the border marker from his vineyard, Matthias Kleiber farms 16 hectares of wheat, corn, soybeans, potatoes, cherries, plums, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and grapes. He says he makes a decent-enough living doing it, and he prides himself on the integrated pest management techniques that make him eligible for the lucrative government payments.
What he’s doing looks similar to what an average U.S. farmer might be doing. He also sets aside 7 percent of his land in a program much like the U.S. conservation reserve program.
Now 32 years old, he’s farming the same land his grandfather and father did. But 70 percent of his income comes from direct government payments, he says.
“If you have your own farm, it’s attractive. You have to change when things change. I could have done other things but for me, farming is right. I like the lifestyle,” Kleiber says.
He belongs to a small local wine-making cooperative. Pouring himself a glass of wine made from his own grapes grown in the steep hillside vineyard where he’s standing, he looks across the way at the border crossing from France. A steady stream of vehicles enters Switzerland, probably with more tourists ready to be milked of Swiss francs.
Though Switzerland proudly touts its independence, those days are rapidly changing. Bilateral agricultural contracts with the European Union will go in force in two years, eventually making the borders virtually non-existent for trade. Many Swiss think it could benefit them if Switzerland went ahead and joined the European Union, and that could happen in a few years.
“There are 380 million people in Europe and I think we should get a chance to sell our products to them,” Maier says.
For U.S. agricultural products moving into Europe, the uproar over genetically modified organisms remains a tough barrier, the Swiss say.
“Do it 600 years from now. I don’t want to hear anything about it,” Werner Reichen says.
But a Swiss referendum on GMO products is due next year. “There are a lot of questions. What will happen to the next field where GMO crops are grown? What will happen for those who want to farm that land after you? There’s still a big lack of information and therefore the exchange on it is quite heavy and fundamental,” Maier says.
“Europe has a lot of angst and concern about GMO. The farmers want a 10-year moratorium on it. We will have tests of GMO but they will be very, very strict, as strict as if we did have a moratorium.”
Whatever else the Swiss do, they’ll continue to protect farmers. Without them, the country would soon not look like the storybook Switzerland tourists expect. If the tourists decided to take their dollars and yen elsewhere, that would truly be an economic disaster.
Editor’s Note: Charles Johnson recently traveled to Switzerland as part of an award he won in the American Agricultural Editors Association writing contest.
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