Ever so Swissh
Swiss growers have very different views from ours on what qualifies as a large farm. Tom Allen-Stevens finds out.
SWITZERLAND is probably best known for its fondue, yodelling and treacherous off-piste skiing but there is also plenty of arable land in the valleys below the moguls and the nursery slopes. Size is relative for Swiss growers.
Walter Freis 53ha (131 acres) mixed farm near Basle on the Swiss/French border is considered a large farming business in Switzerland, where a 12ha (30 acres) holding is much more usual. Arable land is worth much more, though, at about £10,000/ha (£4,000/acre), compared to £6,000-£7,500/ha here.
Mr Frei owns virtually all his own machinery – and he can afford it: he receives a staggering £330/t for his wheat. And yet, like any other farmer, he still grumbles – five years ago he received £430/t. Admittedly, he is producing a seed crop and receives a premium of about £40/t for it, but a milling premium is still a healthy £28/t.
Support payments are also somewhat different. The country is self-sufficient in wheat, in fact it now produces a surplus. Thus, like the EU, ways of redirecting aid have been looked at and some ecological measures have crept into Swiss agricultural support – not surprising given the power of their green party.
Farmers receive an acreage payment, similar to IACS, which is only paid if they follow a limited amount of integrated crop management (ICM) on their farms. Currently this means that 7.5% of the farms area must follow an ecologically sound regime. There are a range of individual restrictions on inputs, too; for example, Moddus (trinexapac-ethyl) or Terpal are accepted growth regulators, but not chlormequat. With this direct aid worth around £480/ha, it pays to make the effort.
Unlike the EU, aid payments are capped. The first 30ha receives full payments. Then 70% from 30 to 90ha and no support on more than 90ha. There is also an optional scheme called Extenso. Under this regime, farmers may apply herbicides but no fungicides, insecticides or growth regulators. About 40% of Swiss farmers have taken this option which brings in a top-up payment of £165/ha.
So the rewards for getting it right can be huge, but how does this translate into farm practice? Mr Freis ecological area is a meadow on a hillside overlooking the main production area of the farm. To encourage wild flowers and ground nesting birds, he is not allowed to cut this for hay until 15 June (hay-making starts in the middle of May). His primary aims are still to produce high quality and high yield with his wheat crops, but he works in his inputs around the restrictions, which he does not find too onerous.
The autumn herbicide programme consists of isoproturon (IPU) and diflufenican, backed up with some MCPA and ioxynil for the broad-leaved weeds. This is much the same as the UK, except that the application of the contact herbicides can reduce dependence on the residuals.
Mr Frei is dismissive of Extenso: "The quality is not the same and there is no market demand for the grain. I can get a much greater return by protecting my crop." At GS32 he applies Bion with the growth regulator (Moddus). This is a new chemical that is currently unavailable to UK growers which builds the plants own immune system.
If cleavers are a problem he applies 0.75 litre/ha Starane (fluroxypyr). Mr Frei applies just one further application, at GS39, of trifloxystrobin – the new strobilurin again not yet available in the UK – and cyproconazole. At harvest he expects 8-10t/ha.
The mainstay milling wheat is Arina, which has remained in this slot for some 10 years, now. Mr Frei is justifiably proud of his 11ha tract of the variety: there is little disease and hardly a weed in sight. Nor is it just Mr Frei who maintains such high standards. As you drive through the country, Swiss efficiency is in evidence with all the crops in very good condition, although the patchworked plots are rarely larger than 2ha. None of the valuable arable land is wasted – even roadside verges bristle with a good clean crop of barley.
There are changes in store for the future, however, with less government intervention planned after 2001. But as a country that puts a hefty political and commercial reliance on its own independence, it is unlikely that growers will be left to struggle at world market prices. Mr Frei at least has confidence in the future, he sees no need to change from a system that works well and gets results.