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Swiss farmer Mario Baumgartner: Where caring for the countryside is crucial

By Erminia Ciarleglio

The family farm structure in Swiss agriculture means that monoculture isn’t usual. Instead, a good healthy crop rotation is encouraged, says Mario Baumgartner who grows potatoes and a range of processing vegetables on 42 hectares in a »generation joint venture« with his father. Farm sizes mainly remain small and this also means that extra income from outside enterprises is also often necessary. The Baumgartner family follows this trend too, by renting farm building storage space to other people. Mario Baumgartner has been a DLG member for four years now and among major advantages of membership he values the up-to-date information available on market developments and technology advances, as well as the opportunities through membership for learning more about all aspects of farming.

1. Mr Baumgartner, you farm together with your father within a Swiss business form that translates perhaps best as a »generation joint venture«. How does this work?

This is a legally-binding programme designed to offer workable ways of passing on a farm smoothly from one generation to the next. Generally, all aspects: labour, inputs, capital investments, profit, etc., are shared over an agreed period of time. Often, the junior participant invests his or her own capital increasingly in the business so that, by the end of the programme, a complete changeover in ownership has taken place. 

2. What would you say is an outstanding characteristic of Swiss farming?

Typical of the farming scene in my country is the very wide variety of enterprise types. From geographical location alone, differences can range from arable farms in Ticino just 200 m above sea level to summer grazings far up the mountainsides in the Alps. There’s also a shared emphasis on high quality production. Decentralised rural communal networks and the importance of caring for the countryside are both features of rural life all over Switzerland.

3. The potato is an important food crop in your country. But per capita consumption, as well as crop area, have reduced in the last years. As a potato grower yourself, how would you explain this?

Not all of this is true. Certainly, we’ve suffered extremes in weather and this affects the willingness of growers to risk growing potatoes. Farmer numbers have been depleted and, after all, ever-more arable land is being built on. But I would argue about consumption decreases. While fluctuations in consumption from year to year are greater than those experienced 20 years ago, actual per capita consumption for 2016 is put at 47.4 kg (BFS, 2018) and this is slightly more than the figure for 1980!

4. Last year, a rainy spring and very warm summer brought a large reduction in harvest yields throughout Switzerland. Tell us about your experiences.

My father and I had plenty to do because of the weather extremes. But in so far as we grow a number of crops in our rotation, we have had at least some compensation for the ones that have yielded poorly. It can also be said, for our region anyway, that dry years lead to high quality produce at harvest.

5. Environmental awareness has increased in recent years. One result is that farmers face continually more regulations and ecologically-based requirements. How do you come to terms with the situation in your family business?

It’s true that the demands are increasingly more complex. Freedom in farm production and for business manoeuvring is increasingly restricted. But it doesn’t help to fight against the flow in this context. Consumers are nowadays more interested in production. One of the advantages of this attitude is that it gives informed consumption. This brings with it a healthy demand for high quality and organic food products.