Thursday, September 18, 2008
Where pretty comes with a payoff
What's to learn from small farms in Austria and Slovenia, pretty as picture post cards, but seemingly not much more productive than a typical hobby farm in North America?
As a visitor to the Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, which concluded in Portoroz, Slovenia, this week, I came away with several main impressions of Europe's smaller-scale agriculture. Take a tour and see if you agree.
* Farmers as "park rangers." Several top farms we visited were receiving at least half their revenue, one 70%, from government subsidies--mainly for taking care of the countryside. Europe wants its farms to remain picturesque and has put stewardship of the countryside on par with food production.
* Dual purpose cattle still rule the mountains. The dual purpose, meat and milk Simmental breed make up 80% of Austria's beef herd. Farms I visited demonstrated the demand for locally branded meat, sometimes with an organic label. An alpine farm we toured is getting 2,000 Euros for a 10- 12-month-old Simmental beefer sold direct to consumers. Exchange rate that day: 1.6 dollars. Do the math.
* Decoupling is liberating. In getting payments that aren't tied to a certain commodities, Euro farmers appear to be much more free than their U.S. counterparts to explore new crops and enterprises. Some are cashing in on the appeal of their farms for tourism and premium-priced products.
* Agritourism is a growing gold mine. In the tiny country of Slovenia alone, there are some 500 tourist farms. The ones we visited looked highly prosperous, propped up by subsidies and a growing desire by city folk to experience the authenticity of farm life. People are looking for "slow food" and a relaxing life, said one Slovenian.
* Authenticity is in high demand. Central Europeans appear to want their agriculture to weave the past with the present, the practical with the traditional. They want red-and-white cows, traditional fences, heritage fruits and vegetables, and unspoiled agricultural vistas. And, they're willing to pay for it through premium prices and federal funding.
* Small is beautiful. European Union ag leaders don't seem to see globalization as a get-big-or-get-out trend. Franz Fischler, former EU Commissioner for Agriculture, told me that "we don't all have to do everything the same under globalization. Small farms and environmental stewardship are desirable, too. We can have all kinds of farms in the world."
Posted by John Walter at 8:46 AM