Working Together, Swiss Style

At first sight, the Swiss seem to have little in common with the Western Canadian farmer. Farm sizes are more likely to resemble those in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia than a grain or cattle farm on the Prairies. But they do have one thing in common — margins are getting tighter and machinery costs higher.

The Swiss have found some innovative ways to combat machinery overhead costs that might be worthwhile for Canadian farmers to take a better look at. When Peter Gasser needs a job done on his farm in Schleitheim, Switzerland, he looks at his options. Should he do it himself with a machine he shares with a neighbour? Can a neighbour do it as a custom job? Should he rent the machine from the local farm co-op? Or check the list on the Machine Ring to see if the co-op could offer him a good deal?

Gasser operates a medium-sized farm together with his son Benjamin. The average Swiss farm is 27 hectares (67 acres.) They crop 40 hectares (100 acres,) growing wheat, barley, sugar beets, canola, corn for silage, and hay. They also milk 40 dairy cows. The Gassers have worked closely together with their three neighbours for many years, sharing machinery and also the workload.

While in the past they used to help each other put up corn silage, harvest sugar beets and make hay, they are more likely now to hire each other’s services. One neighbour, Hans Russenberger, owns the seed drill and seeds for all four. Another, Christian Bleuler, does all the baling with his own machine.

They call each other for help with small jobs such as loading steers or trucking sugar beets. They still own several pieces of machinery together, among them a cultivator, a liquid manure tank, and a sprayer.

Once a year the four neighbours get together to clear the bills. Russenberger’s wife, Rita, says, “The best part of sharing the machinery is that we all get together once a year and have supper together with the wives.” Gasser’s wife, Margrit, is quick to add, “Everything is clearly calculated using established FAT guidelines.” (FAT guidelines are the equivalent of Alberta

Agriculture farm machinery custom rate guides.) They take care not to misuse each other.

“Everyone is careful. We all have the same basic values,” says Gasser. Daniel Tenger agrees that the human factor is paramount. Tenger, also a medium-sized farmer in the Schleitheim area, shares two thirds of his machinery with two other farmers.

The most important thing is to communicate with each other, Tenger says. “I’d rather ask once too many times, or make one extra phone call,” he says. “I can avoid quite a few issues just by planning ahead.” He shares a plow and seed drill with Ferdi Russenberger. Russenberger works off farm, so Tenger plans around Russenberger’s work schedule. It’s important to be flexible. “You have to be able to look the other way sometimes.” He adds, “Everything is brought back the way it is picked up.”

Most of the machines shared are those that are only in use for short periods, that not everyone needs at the same time. In the Schleitheim area, there are several large farmers — with 100 hectares or more — who rarely share machinery. They say they need to be able to go when it is time.

Res Lehmann, from Eggethof, about 100 km east of Schleitheim, says it is different in his area. There, it is more likely to be the larger farmers who share machinery. “Those who want the newest and biggest available will get together to buy a machine,” he says. They wish to profit from newer more expensive technology.

Lehmann owns a smaller mixed farm in an area known for its orchards and dairy farms. The farm consists of 21 hectares and 28 dairy cows and a large orchard. He is part of a group of farmers who share a machine that picks up the apples from the ground for juicing, and one that sorts apples. These are high tech expensive machines that make life easier, but none of the farmers would be able to afford the machines themselves.

CUSTOM VERSUS SHARING

The advantages of sharing machinery are overstated, Lehmann thinks. When all the calculations are made, it is about the same if you would hire someone to do the job, he says.

As farms grow, the limiting factors are as likely to be time and energy as much as financial shortfalls. The idea of each neighbour owning one machine for a job and hiring himself out to the others makes more sense to Lehmann than to share the machinery and still have to do each job himself.

The Swiss definitely have an advantage over the larger Canadian farms, in that the farms are usually quite close together — within a few kilometres. The fields too are much smaller — often only a hectare or two, so the jobs are done quickly in comparison. This makes it easier to get around each other’s schedules.

Another advantage the Swiss have in being close together is they have a pick of neighbours to work with. Not everyone can work together, whether sharing machinery or jobs. “We know each other, and we know who we can work with,” says Tenger.

One farmer shared his frustration concerning a neighbour who regularly brought the cultivator back missing a tine. He was glad when the farmer finally bought his own cultivator.

Lehmann says, “Every community is different, has different attitudes. Some are open to new ideas, others aren’t.”

Some communities have a larger suite of rental units available at their local farm co-operative. Members can rent a seed drill, or cultivator, or even a sprayer there. The Schleitheim Co-op only has a few low maintenance units — a cultivator or a land roller — as it doesn’t employ anyone to maintain the machines.

JOIN A MACHINE RING

Another option for the area farmers is to be part of the Schaffhauser (a “kanton” or province) Machine Ring, one of many in Switzerland. The Machine Ring is an association of farmers created to encourage farmers to work together, to help them lower overhead costs and create more value with their farms. Members pay approximately Can$100 per year. This gives them access to discounts with many businesses offering farm and building materials and allows them to offer services or machinery to other farmers on a publicly offered list.

Farmers do not need to be members to be able to access most of the services of the ring. But you need to be a member to get the discounts and to be able to offer your own services. Services are offered at accepted published rates. Services, besides custom work or rental of machinery, include bookkeeping help, short-term employees for on the farm or in the household, and some consulting services.

What can the Canadian farmer learn from the Swiss? Farms, especially smaller to medium sized farms, could probably do more sharing of jobs and machinery. Could local farm co-ops rent machinery out? Could the idea of the Machine Ring be adapted for use in some communities? At least it’s worth a thought, something to toss around the coffee shop group. Who knows, you might come up with a Canadian solution!

Marianne Stamm lives on a farm near Westlock, Alta.

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