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Swiss farms are still big cheese after subsidies revolution; The Swiss subsidy regime considers the environment and quality - similar to what Welsh farmers face with CAP reform. David Lloyd finds Swiss farmers doing very nicely - but not without resentment at the cost to taxpayers.

Byline: David Lloyd

FARMERS retain a high popularity rating in Switzerland with the eight out of every 10 Swiss people who choose to holiday at home in the Alps. Such is the nation's appetite for Alpine mountain cheeses and other farm fare that production is geared for local sales and is only shipped to more distant processing plants when the visitors go home.

In Lenk-Simmental, the local creamery is so successful in satisfying the taste buds of visitors that a party from the West Country was investigating the economic potential of providing a palette of summer offerings and recreation in Devon and Cornwall. Manfred Botsch, who heads the Swiss Federal Office for agriculture, explained how in 1996, after intensive political debate, an overwhelming majority of the Swiss electorate voted for a new constitutional mandate for agriculture.

As a result, agriculture must, in a sustainable manner, contribute substantially to providing food, conserving natural resources and the upkeep of rural landscape and decentralised settlement of territory. The reform that followed saw a dramatic shift away from internationally-criticised market support towards direct payment linked not to production but a wide range of ecological and quality objectives.

At the beginning of the reform process nearly two-thirds of the funds earmarked for agriculture went on market support. That's dropped to just a fifth and will go down further in the coming years.

Producers' prices have dropped by 20pc for beef, 30pc for milk and 40pc for cereals and total gross returns from 13bn Swiss Francs to 9.5bn - even though border protection in general remains quite high.

Meanwhile, the share of direct payments in the budget increased from 20 to 71pc subject to the fulfilment of strict conditions such as crop rotation, observing nutrient balance, setting aside ecological compensation areas and periodic soil analysis.

So far Swiss farmers have geared their production to satisfying a home market from which the big multi-nationals are noticeably absent.

But protectionist Switzerland will soon have free trade in cheese with the European Union.

According to Claudia Wirz, a senior journalist with the leading daily newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung, there is a growing perception that it is no longer the farmers who feeds the population - but the exact opposite.

She maintains it is the taxpayer "who feeds the farmer through the unshakeably high subsidies he receives". People have realised that Switzerland "has not become a rich country through the efforts of its farmers." Ten years ago a survey suggested one in four Swiss people considered agriculture too expensive. Today over half the population holds that view and the agricultural idyll that was promoted for political reasons in the past has lost a good deal of its gloss. Claudia Wirz said: "For the first time since the Second World War farmers in Switzerland cannot count on majority approval for their demands - neither in political circles nor in the media nor among the population."

The cuckoo clock may be ticking but mountain farmers in the Bernese Oberland remain optimistic despite their limited acres for which they receive a basic payment of 1,200 Swiss Francs (around pounds 550 per hectare). There are top ups for the public services provided and for those farming sheer slopes in the foothills of peaks that have tested the world's greatest climbers.

But some 300 agricultural journalists from more than 30 countries who attended the 49th Congress of the IFJA, in Thun, found farmers in good heart. In addition to tending to the land and livestock, farmers make ice cream, butter, and various regional cheeses for sale at the door Many farmers readily accept the need to supplement their incomes as craftsmen, mountain guides, ski instructors or manning the cable cars. Werner and Hanni Kunner are cattle breeders on 17.3 hectares at an altitude of 1500 metres with an entitlement to graze 20 pedigree Simmental cows on an alp during the summer. They supply 40,000 kg of milk for the Lenk Milch plant, situated in a former military bunker in the village below, and up to 8,000 kg for their next-door neighbour to make into alpine cheese.

He is Niklaus Gfeller, a newcomer into farming, who with wife Ramona has invested in on-farm cheese-making equipment despite having a limited milk contingent of 20,000 kg for the mountain and lowland pasture they lease from an Alpine farming corporation. Around 1,100 kg of cheese produced during the short summer is sold direct


David Lloyd (left) is pictured with former IFAP president Paul Queck at the Congress of International Farm Journalists in Switzerland, where he watched Niklaus Gfeller of the Lenk-Simmental region make one of the cheeses in demand from locals and tourists alike (right
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 6, 2005
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