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Letter from Europe

Farm Perspectives

Background: Marianne Stamm grew up on a pioneer farm in the Peace country of British Columbia. Marriage to her Swiss husband Robert sent her to a mixed family farm in Switzerland, then back to a grain farm in Westlock, Alberta. She has now moved back to Switzerland to be near the grandchildren. Looking at the Swiss and/or European agriculture scene from the perspective of a western Canadian grain farmer can be interesting.

In the two months “back home” in rural Western Canada this summer, I couldn’t get enough of the wide expanse of sky above and around me. Big. That’s what struck me this last visit. Everything is big — the sky, the fields, the grocery stores, the steaks, the highways, the trucks. I forgot all that I’d been conditioned to believe in my time living in Switzerland. I drove a Dodge Hemi pickup and ate as many big steaks as I could with total enjoyment. You’re not supposed to do that, you know. But no one around seemed to worry about whether their vehicle was puffing out too many emissions, or that eating meat, especially red meat, fosters global warming.

Swiss media tells me that farmers are the worst anyway, when it comes to harmful emissions. In fact, they are the reason that the Swiss are not more prosperous, according to a recent headline spread over the whole page of our local paper: “Der Agrarschutz vernichtet Wohlstand” — “Agriculture protectionism destroys prosperity” (Schaffhauser Nachrichten SN, Thursday, October 6, 2016). I almost choked on my morning coffee.

I occasionally do the layout for our local farm paper. Headlines are important — they capture the reader’s interest. But this headline didn’t even reflect the content of the article, which was an interview between the SN and the director of Think Tank Avenir Suisse. Only one small paragraph had anything to do with agriculture. Now the Swiss aren’t exactly at the bottom of the world’s list of wealthy countries. In fact, despite what outsiders see as high food prices, the Swiss pay the third lowest for food in relation to income. So I find it hard to feel sorry for them that government agriculture subsidies are supposedly keeping them from even more wealth.

One thing hit home to me during my stay in Canada. Where we live affects the way we see the world. Here in Switzerland we live in the middle of world happenings. The Syrian war isn’t that far away, neither is Putin. Refugees stranded in Italy are only a day’s drive away. We live on top of each other, so that everyone sees what I do, and what I do affects the next person. That makes us a little paranoid, I think. A person living on a farm on the Canadian Prairies can be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t matter if they drive a big truck (I don’t know if it does either). That little bit of exhaust in that big sky surely can’t matter. With so much space, what difference does it make if a herd of cows belches methane gas into the air? Western Canadian farmers are thankful there are big feedlots to sell all that downgraded wheat to. Which consumers would eat bread from feed wheat? Certainly not the Swiss, who are spoiled with some of the best bread in the world? If their wheat all turns feed, as it did this last summer, they’re the ones with the money to import No. 1 wheat from somewhere else. Like from Canada.

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