21 April 2000



Everyone you see outside the EU tells you youre a feather-

bedded farmer. So it was a distinct relief to visit a farm

sector thats rather more subsidised than the UKs, explains

Lincs arable grower Nicholas Watts, who went to Switzerland

JOURNEY to the north of Switzerland and you see how England might have been 60 years ago. And yet everyone has a decent standard of living. The village shop, petrol station, post office, decent bus service, butcher and slaughterhouse are still in evidence in many villages, along with a good community spirit and no crime.

Most farms are mixed farms, with tractors housed in garages in the main street. There are often two or three muck-heaps, cockerels crow in the morning and tractors and implements are washed down – all in the street. But everywhere was very tidy.

The houses appear large but are often attached to the barn where implements and animals are kept. Very often there are three generations living in a house.

Average farm size here is only 16ha (40 acres), with land spread all around the village in small fields averaging less than 1ha (2.5 acres). Farmers work together at planting and harvest times, but they are all well-equipped – usually with three tractors on each holding.

However cracks are appearing in their rural fabric too. One farmer had wanted to expand but of course there was no room to do this actually in the village. Instead he sold two houses to commuters and built himself a new house and farmyard outside the village.

He told me that he was not popular for doing this but he had eventually obtained planning permission. He was the largest farmer in the village, with 50ha (120 acres) and 30 dairy cows with an average 7000 litres/lactation in a modern cow house with all the mod cons.

Things to come

This is the shape of things to some. As prices gradually come down, farmers will not be able to exist on 16ha. They will be getting out or expanding and selling their attractive houses to those who work in the cities.

At the moment these farmers can only exist on 16ha because they are so heavily subsidised. Here in the lowlands every hectare farmed is given a subsidy of 12,505 Swiss francs (£520). They grow a good range of crops, with wheat predominating and rape, spring barley, sunflowers, sugar beet, soya beans, maize, grass, clover for seed and vines all widely grown.

Farming on these small acreages means theres a lot of attention to detail. All operations are carried out with great care – spraying is done at a steady 3-4mph – and equipment is well looked after. Wheat yields are 7-8 t/ha.

Cycocel is prohibited and farmers only receive the £520/ha provided they dont use any fungicides. Nor are they allowed to spray their wheats before Jan 1. Most farmers are happy to take the £520/ha option. Everyone grows milling varieties and any crop that doesnt make breadmaking quality receives a lower price and goes for feed.

Though otherwise well-equipped, most Swiss farmers dont have a combine. Instead they rely on contractors, who charge £180-£200/ha (£75-80/acre) just to do the harvesting.

Prices for commodities have eased substantially. Wheat two years ago was £300/t and rape was £610/t. Wheat is now £170/t and rape £330/t.

Sugar beet

Sugar beet is also a popular crop. Contractors with six-row harvesters lift the beet, which is then sent by rail to the factory. Beet still receives the £520/ha payment and the farmer also gets around £50/t at 16% sugar. Contractors charge about £400/hectare (£160/acre) to lift the beet. In fact everyone seems to make quite a good living, including the agricultural merchant who charges £210/t for a 34.5% nitrogen product.

With so much money handed out to farmers it is quite clear that the Swiss politician values the country way of life more than his UK counterparts. The government also provides money for agri-environment schemes. Many farmers have entered contracts with the government over the last 10 years to protect the diversity of alpine meadows. Arable farmers leave fallow strips or plant wild flower meadows or hedges for payments of between £500 and £740/ha (£200-300/acre). Conservationists have monitored certain areas and have found that these payments are working as populations of skylarks, corn buntings and quail are increasing.

Yes, it was hard not to be jealous of the Swiss farmers lot.

Main pic: Switzerland still pays substantial subsidies to its farmers, but that will probably not stop many smaller farmers going out of business. Inset: Machinery and muck clamps are kept on the street.

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