No country for small farmers
The number of small farm businesses in Switzerland have halved since 1980. The despair of many farmers is underestimated.
Hans (not his real name) sighs. His cowshed is cold, comfortless and empty. A pitchfork, a broom and a milking stool are propped against the wall.
“It’s not easy,” Hans says with a faraway look in his eyes.
Is he thinking about the 18 dairy cows he was forced to sell last year or a future he can barely imagine?
Hans is in his 50s. For 30 years, he milked his cows and took their milk to the local dairy where they were turned into yoghurt, curd and butter.
“I just couldn’t keep going like that,” he says with a hint of resignation. In autumn 2015, he was almost immobilised by a double slipped disc. He only got back on his feet after protracted therapy. Since then, he has had to take care of his health.
To add to his woes, his dairy cows suffered extreme fertility problems last summer. “No one could figure out the reason for these difficulties,” Hans recalls. Then he had to renovate his 30-year-old cowshed with its outdated equipment. To do that he had to borrow money. Just the idea of the investment weighed heavily, especially since all four of his children have chosen different career paths.
At the end of 2016 he surrendered. “I haven’t failed because I loved my work as a farmer and the animals. I was simply no longer prepared to do this work at any price,” says Hans. But the decision to give up everything has turned his life and day-to-day existence on its head. In the past, the animals dictated his daily schedule; now the day sometimes seems to go on forever. He is a stay-at-home husband while his wife is out at work.
Every year, hundreds of farms in Switzerland cease operations. Since 1980, the number of farm businesses has halved. Today there are around 53,000 left. In 2015 alone, 800 agricultural businesses disappeared, above all small and medium-sized ones, particularly those specialised in dairy products.
By contrast, the number of big farm businesses over 50 hectares is increasing. “As in all branches of industry, agriculture is undergoing a structural transformation,” says Gianluca Giuliani, an agricultural engineer and expert in agriculture. “Farms are condemned to grow in order to be productive and sustainable. Alternatively, they have to discover niche markets such as farm tourism or selling products direct to consumers. But not all businesses have such opportunities. It is particularly small and medium-sized farms that can’t keep up with the times that have barely a hope of survival.”
Structural change in agriculture can be analysed with economic instruments, according to Giuliani. He refers to the U.S. agriculture expert Willard Cochrane’s theory that structural transformation is stimulated by the so-called agricultural technology treadmill.
This multi-phased process works as follows, according to Giuliani: “Thanks to a technological innovation, there is over-production and a collapse in prices. This leads results in the financial ruin of vulnerable farmers who invested in the technology. They give up, reducing production and leading to an increase in prices. And then, unfortunately, the whole cycle starts again from the beginning.”
This treadmill produces hundreds of victims every year, including Hans, the farmer from the Bernese Seeland, or lake district. “At some point, a spiral of hope will open up again,” he says. But it’s not easy for him to change his life when the only work he has known involved being independent, outdoors and in contact with animals.
In Canton Vaud alone, 12 farmers have committed suicide in the past two years. That caused great dismay and unease in farming circles. Countermeasures have been taken. Since autumn 2015, a pastor has been taking care of the crisis-shaken farmers. Pierre-André Schütz, a reform pastor in the village of Autavaux near Neuchâtel, looks after about 40 families. “I encounter a lot of despair,” Schütz told Swiss public television SRF. “People are often afraid of the future.”
Pierre-André Schütz knows what he is talking about. He was a farmer himself until the age of 52. After suffering depression, he decided to study theology. Now he is 67 but has no time for retirement. Canton Vaud created a part-time job for him, but he actually works full-time.
“I am swamped with requests. The despair of many farmers is completely underestimated.” A farmer who files for bankruptcy is forced to sell his farmyard and estate, which have often been in the same family for generations. “This is experienced as a disgrace, a humiliation that can be unbearable,” Schütz says.
The structural transformation in agriculture is not the only cause of desperation. Many factors contribute.
“Several generations often live together under one roof on farms – grandparents, parents and children. This cohabitation has become more problematic because needs have changed,” says Lukas Schwyn, a pastor in a parish in the Emmental and president of the Farmers’ Helpline. “The majority of farmers’ wives are well educated and want to make a career outside the home farm. The men often insist on a traditional division of roles.”
The Farmers’ Helpline was launched in 1996. The organisation behind it is a cooperative association. The number of calls they receive is rising. In 2015, the helpline received 151 calls, twice as many as in 2011. The majority of callers were men and family conflicts accounted for most calls (39%) followed by financial and economic problems.
“Farmers, especially those aged between 50 and 65, often ask whether they shouldn’t just give up everything,” says Schwyn. He emphasises that the suicides in French-speaking Switzerland were not only the result of economic difficulties stemming from current agricultural policy. Personal or relationship problems also played an important role. “It’s very rare for farmers to inform us of suicidal intent in our conversations. But we have identified an increasing number of calls relating to depression and burnout.”
There has definitely been a movement towards helping farming families facing personal or financial difficulties in Switzerland. Since spring 2015, representatives of various support organisations in German-speaking Switzerland meet regularly on the “Emergency Help” platform. This is a step towards an exchange of information and experience. The goal is to learn from each another and to further develop services both in terms of content and organisation.
Back at Hans’s farm in the Bernese Seeland, we say our goodbyes after our visit and the conversation. He takes a bottle of milk out of the fridge and pours some into a bowl for his cat. The milk is no longer from his farm. He no longer has any cows.
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