Land-hungry Switzerland eats up hundreds of nation's small farmers

Rumland, a pretty agricultural community just a stone's throw from Zurich's Kloten Airport, has lost a farmer a year in the past decade. The population has shot up in 20 years from just over 1,700 to around 5,500 as city dwellers from the space-hungry Zurich metropolis have moved in. The farmers who remain tend to be, by Switzerland's more miniature standards, the big ones. Because, says farmer Hans Gujer, "You cannot survive today with less than 10 hectares [24.7 acres]."

He adds, "More houses and streets keep on getting built and a farmer just cannot afford to buy land anymore." With prices up to $100 a square meter (10.7 square feet) within the housing and $8 a square meter within the agricultural zones, farmers can do the reverse -- make a profit and move out.

Mr. Gujer is one of the farmers who is staying put. But then he has centuries of tradition behind him. After all, the model farm of his Rumlang ancestor, Jakob Gujer, was a must for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on his travels through Switzerland in the 1770s.

The story is similar for most farming villages in Switzerland today. From the high Alps to the rolling lowlands, farmers are leaving the land.

What does this mean to a country that is built not only on banks, exporting high technology, and phamaceuticals but also on attracting tourists who expect cows with big, clinking bells and Heidi farmhouses dripping with geraniums?

Swiss federal government statistics show that between 1975 and 1980 Switzerland lost 7,852 farms. Since 1973 more than 400 farmers have migrated to Canada. Others have gone to France or Australia.

The reasons are many. High on the list is this small country's shortage of space. More than 40 percent of land worked by farmers is leased.

Owners can be communities, cantons, the federal government, or private real estate investors. Any of these can suddenly decide that its land is better used for building a highway or houses. Often a farmer, to make a commercial go of it , must lease land from several sources. This adds to the insecurity.

Christian Schenk, of the Zurich Farmers' Office, points out that this problem has been enhanced by a "back to the land" fashion among high city income earners. They drive up prices by buying "romantic farmhouses," often as a second home. They lease out the land but are often unwilling to make the necessary investment.

Mr. Schenk also sees insurance companies and pension funds as price pushers. They are unable to find enough outlets for liquid funds, much of which must be invested by law in Switzerland's limited market. So they compete for agricultural lands.

Petrodollar surpluses have not improved the Swiss farmer's position, Mr. Schenk maintains, as they find a safe haven in a slice of alpine country.

For many farmers, the often tough life holds little attraction. Why not earn more money working in a factory or sitting in an office, and enjoy nature on the weekends? So the farm is just sold off because "there are no young ones around anymore," explains Otto Schneebeli, mayor of Obfelden, a farming community within a 30-minute drive of Zurich. Obfelden has lost around 10 farms in the last decade and enjoyed a boom in one-family houses for nature-loving city commuters.

A few months ago a movement of dissident Swiss farmers suddenly sprang up. It is called the Swiss Association for the Protection of Small and Medium-sized Farmers, and it is working together with similar associations in Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Scandinavia. The purpose is to change official policies which the protesting farmers claim favor "big farmers and agribusiness," in the words of Swiss Association president Rene Hochuli.

Mr. Hochuli would like to see a better price subsidy system for the small producer, who has higher costs than large agricultural managers. He wants close cooperation between consumer and farmer, thus doing away with the expensive middleman.

"There must be solidarity between producers and consumers. Only then will both get a better deal," explains Mr. Hochuli.

However, it is not only the dissidents who recognize the Switzerland must do more for its average farmers. The official Swiss farmers' Association has called for less empahsis on performance in federal agricultural support programs and more on keeping a healthy class of people alive through family based farms.

But the fedeal govenment already pays out almost $800 million annually in agricultural subsidies. It is facing a total budget deficit of some $520 million in the bargain. Therefore both taxpayers and an administration hard-pressed to bring down deficit costs are likely to look at any increased subsidies to the agricultural sector with a very critical eye.

The solution is likely to be more to small mountain farms. As one cynic recently put it, "They are needed as a sort of landscape gardening for the tourist industry. But in the valleys the little guy will continue to give way to the performance-oriented, highly mechanized big farms -- or to rural houses for city slickers."

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