Every farm has its own story. No two farms (or farmers) are exactly alike. Everyone got started in a different way, and every farm has a different combination of family and hired staff who make the decisions and keep things running. But, in general, even after you consider all of the details, farmers are more alike than different.
This basic similarity is even more obvious in this issue, as we tell the story of Markus Stamm’s farm, in Switzerland. The Stamm farm might not be as big as yours, and it might not be as flat as yours, but Markus’s challenges sound a lot like all of the Canadian Prairie stories we’ve told through this feature.
Where do you farm?
Our farm of 30 hectares (75 acres), called the Birkenhof, is one kilometer outside of Schleitheim. The Swiss village of 1,600 is on the border to Germany, at the edge of the Black Forest.
What do you grow?
We are a mixed farm, growing sugar beets, canola, wheat, barley, triticale, corn for silage, and grass. One of the new subsidy programs requires seven different crops for diversity, which is why I added triticale and barley to the wheat. The calves of our 30 beef cows are sold to the Co-op superstore for their beef label ‘Natura Beef.’
How long have you been farming?
Our family has farmed for eight to 10 generations out of the farm buildings in the village. When my wife and I married, we moved into one of two apartments in the new farm buildings where we are today. My parents and my grandfather lived in the other apartment. My grandfather and father have since passed on.
Who do you farm with?
Everyone who has time: Our two sons and my wife help me out, mostly during the busy seasons. In January our son Simon will take over the farm. That will be the fourth generation on this farm here. I myself began driving public bus this last fall.
I hope that our son can successfully operate the farm; that he can use the opportunities a niche product might bring him, or see new trends early and take advantage of them.
You could have done anything. Why did you choose farming?
I never thought of anything else. That’s true. I couldn’t conceive of doing anything else and didn’t think I had other possibilities. If I hadn’t farmed I would have become a heavy-duty truck mechanic.
What farming season do you enjoy most?
I love the harvest, when we can reap that which we’ve taken care of and worried over the whole year.
What’s the farm implement you can’t live without?
The self-loading feeder wagon. It’s on the job 365 days a year; the machine that most lightens my work load. In Canada they load silage with a backhoe. They don’t have this machine over there.
What good decision have you made that turned out well?
When we decided to sell the milk cows and switch to beef. The price and demand for beef are good. Milk prices have dropped way down since the quota was eliminated and haven’t recuperated since. We exited the milk industry five years before that. Beef cattle give us far more flexibility besides more free time. If you’re alone on the farm, you can go out on a frosty morning and harrow the field before feeding instead of having to do the milking first. By the time you’d finished milking, the earth would have unthawed making harrowing impossible.
Have you made a decision on the farm that you regret?
We’re just now feeling the effects of a poor decision made by my grandfather in the l950s. He decided not to purchase a field next to the farm because his offer wasn’t accepted. He would only have had to pay a minimal amount more. At the time he felt they couldn’t afford that. Our family has been renting that field right up to the last year. Now we’ve lost the land because the granddaughter of the owner has her own ideas for the land.
What do you see as the biggest challenge over the next five to 10 years?
That products, for example palm oil, are produced somewhere en masse and exported to the whole world. Land and people in the export country are exploited. Local production in countries where the palm oil is exported to can’t compete.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity over the next five to 10 years?
For us here in Switzerland it is producing for the local market. The consumer here wants food that is produced in natural, sustainable ways, for example free range hens, grass fed beef, or organic products. I believe another opportunity is to abstain from production methods that are standard in other countries, such as using GMO seed. Here in Switzerland we still have a moratorium on that. It could make sense to produce in ways counter to what other countries are doing.
What do you like to do for fun or to relax?
Sunday evening after chores I like to go for a ride along the fields and creek with my bicycle. I enjoy reading the newspaper, in the evenings, after a day in the office; something that helps me forget the day’s work and relax. I get to choose what I want to read.