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Two markets; two attitudes

Letters from Europe: European growers work in a different policy and market environment 
than Prairie farmers

A meadow is inspected to see if it fulfills the requirements for the subsidy program — diversity of plant species.

Recently a Swiss workshop speaker, Ruedi Sutter, commented on the many changes to Swiss agriculture in the last 30 years. It caused me to contemplate the similarity and difference of changes compared to western Canadian farmers.

What I see when I visit “home” (Alberta), confirms my research on the web. The January 2016 report from Stats Canada on agriculture and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s “Overview of Canadian Agriculture in 2016” write that Canadian farms are bigger and fewer, with more corporate and less family farms. Commodity prices are up (down a little again) but so are input costs. Land is owned less and rented more. Both reports praised Canadian farmers in their ability to adjust to market forces and consumer demands.

Over here in Switzerland, I watch fields growing in size (from half a hectare to two or four), farm size rising as older farmers exit the “game,” and farmers pooling land, cows or other resources to capitalize on synergies. But while my Canadian neighbours add one more fungicide pass and tweak fertilizer placements to maximize yields, the wheat fields I bike by are dotted with red poppies again. Agriculture policy in the two countries is headed in opposite directions.

Most western Canadian farmers are foremost producers, growing commodities for yield and price. If soybean prices go up, they seed more canola. Their consumer is represented by the international commodity exchanges, especially as local markets such as feedlots disappear.

I am the consumer for the Swiss farmer. I bike by my food on his farm, observe how he cares for his animals, and how often he spreads manure in his fields. I have to slow down when he sprays his wheat so I don’t get hit by the drift. The media is constantly bringing new stories of how detrimental pesticides and fertilizers are to my health. I get to sign petitions for changes in agriculture law and vote on them. The Swiss consumer has power.

A good 20 years ago, Swiss agriculture policy shifted from rewarding the Swiss farmer for production to rewarding him for sustainable and environmentally friendly production practices. It’s been a tough transition for many farmers. They feel like they’ve become employees of the state, landscapers instead of farmers. Many older farmers I know are thankful they can pass the farm on to a child or to sell or rent their land. Others are grasping the opportunities the new market offers: growing organic food, cultivating closer relationships to consumers with on-farm marketing and events. I’ve always wondered how the Swiss farmer can survive on his handkerchief-size fields (from my Canadian viewpoint). The niche market seems the way to go.

I have farm friends in Canada that are going the same way. Not everyone there is buying into the bigger is better philosophy. More Canadians are concerned about the safety of their food and sustainability of the environment. Like a good part of Swiss consumers, they’re willing to drive farther and pay more for food they can feel a part of.

I think the two philosophies — bigger, better, more yield versus organic and direct consumer orientated — will always be there. Both will constantly adapt to new trends and policies. It will be interesting to see what the next 30 years will bring.

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