Contributed by Mary Pecaut
Swiss Family Farm Marcel Balmer’s bicycle basket overflows with lettuce as he pulls into his family’s produce shop in Founex, 16 km north of Geneva on the shores of Lac Léman.
reeting local residents, the 72-year-old farmer ducks under the yellow-striped awning passing bins of zucchini, tomatoes, green onions and several types of lettuce. Inside, cascading crates burst with every type of seasonal vegetable and fruit imaginable. Six apple varieties line a wall, a wooden stand displays homemade honeys and jams and a table features plum pies prepared by Marcel’s 84-year-old sister, Edith. In a photo on the wall behind the counter, Marcel plants potatoes with a horse drawn plow. A ceiling beam that dates from the 1700s was salvaged from the 1988 arson fire which burned their barn to the ground.
Yet at a time when family farms across Switzerland are declining, their story is one not just of survival but success. The Balmers have farmed this land since 1916. Marcel’s father, Fritz, inherited it through marriage, passing it along to Marcel, his wife Damaris, and his brother Jean. They continued to farm in an integrated manner, growing wheat, potatoes and barley as well as raising cattle, sheep and horses while still maintaining the vineyards and orchards, hiring seasonal laborers as needed. Now Marcel’s son of 44, Alexandre, manages the business, while Marcel and Damaris operate the shop with the help of their daughter, Anne.
Digging up the latest crop.
A proud display of lettuces
Confronting the many challenges of farming requires adaptability, strong business acumen, and a client-based approach. Unlike Fritz, Marcel, Damaris and Alexandre studied at Marcelin, the agricultural school in Morges. Not only are they highly trained; they have exhibited flexibility to adapt to modern technology, market trends, and fluctuating economics. In the late 1980s the Balmers phased out animal rearing and field crops in favor of vegetable production and direct sale of their produce. They constructed a greenhouse-type tunnel to extend the growing season and installed two large refrigerators to enable a longer market season. What began as the occasional sale of a few heads of lettuce from their family gardens expanded into four hectares of vegetables and a shop, which is open year round, selling not only family grown vegetables but also produce from other local farmers. In the 1990s Swiss agriculture witnessed a number of significant reforms. The New Agricultural Act of 1996 targeted sustainable development, granting equal weight to economic, social and environmental aspects. The elimination of price and market guarantees, which had been in place since WWII, meant that farmers were required to market their own produce. Some farmers were not able to adjust, but the Balmers were ahead of the game.
Many farms have sought ways to supplement their income. The Balmers rent apartments and lease land for farming. As the costs of production have increased and hiring seasonal workers has become onerous, the Balmers are determined not to expand production beyond what they could reasonably manage themselves, but rather to consolidate. The Balmers rent farmland and vineyards, for which they no longer have the personnel to farm, out to other growers. They produce what is grown and sell it in their shop. In addition to serving local residents, they also sell to restaurants and occasionally to area supermarkets. When you visit Manor in the fall, you will see a pyramid of pumpkins produced by the Balmers, with a photo of Alexandre and Marcel. In the barn, Alex points out a potatoplanting tractor, which dates from 1936. He notes regretfully that this is the first year in nearly 100 years that they have not grown potatoes. The tractor is broken and the cost of repair to work a small plot is not economical. They will still sell potatoes in the shop, produced by a local grower. Alex stops to explain his planning process. He plans each parcel one year in advance, ensuring crop rotation as well as clients’ wishes. Diverse vegetables including Brussels sprouts, asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, and
Published on Jun 25, 2012
Hello Switzerland is written by expats for expats living in Switzerland. Designed mainly for English speakers, the magazine contains feature...