Strengthening family farms

Interview with Markus Müller, owner of a small farm

The Swiss agricultural policy has embarked on a course, which hardly complies with the guidelines given in the Federal Constitution. The direction proposed by the official agricultural policy (AP 2014–2017) breaks the backbone of domestic food production and food supply with healthy natural groceries. The Swiss economy is characterised by an extremely solid and stable structure with a variety of industries and a prevailing share of medium-sized and smaller companies. These decentralised, small-scale production and supply structures promote supply security, diversity, innovation and a healthy competitive environment. We should not underestimate the very positive consequences for the preservation of jobs for Switzerland as an industrial centre and the related security of income. Without earned income by work and production, an economy gets into trouble quite quickly, not rarely leading to unwanted or even malicious dependencies. This security of earnings applies to all industrial branches including the local farmers. Here, modern policy commits a sin by creating a climate of existential threat for the farmers under wrong auspices (global competitiveness, globalisation, free trade). For years, especially the smaller and medium-sized family farms have been struggling to survive. It makes you think twice that this struggle was deliberately created on the part of politics, especially the technocrats in the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG). With regard to the so-called “export capacity and competitiveness” the local agriculture is being blackmailed by structural reassessments and direct payments (or the refusal of these direct payments). Instead of family farms, industrial agriculture is to be promoted in Switzerland. This, even though reputable scientists worldwide stated in the World Agricultural Report many years ago, that family farms are superior to industrial agriculture in the fight against hunger and poverty. Such recommendation, adapted to Swiss conditions, must be very seriously considered in our part of the world.
In addition, last year the UN year of “Family Farming” was celebrated, and in particular Swiss major supermarket chains were busy adverting by using idyllic pictures of beautiful farms and families embedded in nature. There is no question that we need a well-mixed decentralised structure of food production and supply in our country. Our times are times of unrest so that a largely secured supply of food from local production must have first priority in our state and social politics. It is an essential contribution to strengthen our country’s sovereignty and must be promoted as such.
We have asked Markus Müller, who manages a medium-sized family farm, some questions about the current situation of Swiss family farms.

Current Concerns: Mr Müller, you are managing a small farm. Can you briefly introduce your company and your family to our readers?

Markus Müller: We own a small farm in the village of Trutigen in the commune Neuenkirch (Canton of Lucerne) working as full-time farmers; we, that is Rita and Markus Müller with our children, Silvio, Aline and Leandro. We also work the Alp Suretta Sufers in the mountains of the Canton of Grisons.
6.6 ha of agricultural land, 10 cows, 20 sows, our dog Simba, a few chickens and cats belong to our farm. Besides animal husbandry we are growing wheat and triticale and we produce cherries, apples and plums from standard fruit trees. Triticale is a crop bred from crossing durum wheat (Triticum aestivum) and rye (Secale cereale). It serves mainly as a feed grain because the baking ability is less good than the mixture of wheat and rye. The cultivation of triticale is similar to that of wheat. The plant has a good adaptability, is not demanding and also suitable for higher altitudes.
In addition, we produce 30,000 kWh of solar electricity. We receive about 18,000 Swiss francs of subsidies per year from the state.

Would you please explain your situation as a manager of a farm in a few sentences to us.

Today, the work of managing a farm is rather the work of an office worker. You have to fill out forms permanently, implement new legislation and adapt operations. Work on the farm, taking care of the animals, machinery repair, are going short. Authorities dictate, what we have to do and how we have to do it.

The farmers are again and again prompted to be entrepreneurs. For free enterprise, however, it is imperative to fix the prices of manufactured products by means of a fair, cost-oriented calculation and generate the price on the market. Why is this principle rendered inoperative with respect to agriculture?

This is because a false ideology is applied. In industry, the bigger ones are said to produce more and cheaper. This does not apply to agriculture. It is the nature that sets natural limits to us. The structural change with bigger farms leads to a more expensive production, because the corresponding mechanisation cost many times more. For example, in a small to medium farm one can feed the animals just with a fork (costs: 35 francs), a large farm needs a fodder mixing vehicle (costs: 35,000 francs). The larger operation has to produce 1,000 times more than the smaller one, to balance these costs, and this is impossible. And if it is done, there is a consequence on the price. A result of higher production volumes is that prices fall. Only state subsidies can help to keep up such kind of production. This has nothing to do with market and market prices.

The official agricultural policy would like to merge the medium-sized and smaller farms into larger operating units. This structural reform is threatening the existence of the rural family business. What needs to be done to provide a real prospect for the future family farms?

A basic support for every full-time farmer is required, as well as fewer regulations and a market-oriented production, this means a production volume matched to the demand and no overproduction, so that the prices are adequate. The current agricultural policy forces the farmers to increase the production volume in order to compensate falling prices.

With direct payments, farmers should receive compensation for the non-compensatory product prices. Why are these payments not sufficient for a long-term existence of your business?

The problem is not the amount of direct payments, but rather the corresponding regulations. If you first have to invest a lot of money into the business to fulfill the conditions for receiving direct payments and then the rules are changed again relatively quickly, which again leads to new investments, the bill for the farmer doesn’t add up. In addition, this policy leads to ever-increasing production costs.

What must be changed, so that the farming community in our country can fulfill the mandate laid down in the Federal Constitution?

A simple financial back up for every farm operating full-time is required in line with the initiative for small farmers, launched by René Hochueli and Lorenz Kunz. The Vereinigung zum Schutz der kleinen und mittleren Bauern (VKMB, Association for the Protection of Small and Medium-sized Farms) under its President René Hochueli launched a popular initiative for a real traditional agriculture with the slogan “Gnue Heu dune! (too much has happened)” on 1 September 1983. “We want to remain farmers!” the committee chose as a headline for an article in the association’s own monthly bulletin. Fight was announced to the “meat factories with no connection to the soil” and mass production businesses. The popular initiative “Food sovereignty” (www.ernaehrungsouveraeniteat.ch) of Uniterre goes precisely into this direction.

What do you expect from the Swiss citizens in relation to the preservation of the agricultural family business?

Of course, I appreciate the many manifestations of sympathy to the farmers. On the other hand, I’d like to see a fair consumer behaviour and an attitude of understanding of all citizens, that all companies have a right to exist regardless of their size and their location. Also, I expect their determination to affirm their sympathies by political actions.

Mr Müller, thank you very much for the interview.     •

(Interview Reinhard Koradi)