The last dairy farmer in the village

Swiss farmers are receiving an increasingly low price for their milk, which has major repercussions. Fewer and fewer farmers are keeping dairy cows, and if they do, they have ever larger herds. This is slowly changing the appearance of the Swiss countryside.

The curve shows a constant downward trend: Of the 26,000 dairy farms recorded in Switzerland six years ago, 6,000 have now disappeared. The large fluctuations are seasonal.

Aekenmatt once had lots of dairy farms. Today Res Burren is the last remaining dairy farmer in the village.

Cows grazing on a luscious green meadow – an increasingly rare sight. Outdoors you either see no cows at all or large herds on semi-industrial farms.

Aekenmatt, a small hamlet on the edge of the Bernese alpine foothills, is how many people might imagine a typical Swiss farming village to look. Sizeable farms are found here on the undulating landscape. Splendid box-tree-lined farmers’ gardens, burbling fountains and sun-beaten timber-framed buildings create the impression that little has changed here over the past two or three centuries. Except for when the commuter traffic runs through the village in the morning and evening tranquillity prevails. This impression is nevertheless deceiving. The characteristic hamlet also typifies the far-reaching change that is commonplace in rural Switzerland. All the farms in Aekenmatt were dairy farming a generation ago. Every morning and evening, all the farming families would cart the fresh milk to the “Chäsi”, the cheese dairy, in the centre of the village. It was made into Emmental in the neighbouring village.

But today 55-year-old Res Burren is the last dairy farmer in the village. He actually lives right next to the cheese dairy. However, the last time that milk from Aekenmatt was used for cheese production was in 1999. The cheese dairy even ceased to be a milk collection point two years ago. A tanker comes to the village every two days to collect the milk from the village’s last dairy farmer. Instead of travelling 20 metres to the cheese dairy, today it is transported 20 kilometres from the outset to a large-scale, industrial processing plant in the conurbation of Berne. The only rural thing about it is its address, which is 9 Milchstrasse (milk street).

Sharp drop from 100 to 50 cents

The village’s only dairy farmer may also be its last. Burren is not sure whether he will continue milking in future. He is faced with a fight for survival. When he was training it was drilled into him that average production costs in Switzerland stood at 70 cents per litre of milk. He later received government subsidised milk prices of 100 cents. Today he just gets around 50 cents. When analysing his business, he always comes to the same conclusion: “If I gave up the cows and just kept a few beef cattle, I would earn just as much as it involves far less expenditure.”

The reasons for not – or not yet – giving up are unmissable on the farm built in 1833. Worn placards on the wall of the building document outstanding success as a breeder. In the sheds the names and dates neatly written on blackboards in white chalk point to an animal-loving nature. It is not abstract units of cattle found here, but instead Lolita, Naomi, Prag, Regula, Rosette, Ricola, Selina, Tamara, Tiffany and 11 other individuals with udders who have melodious-sounding names.

Rapid structural change

The hamlet of Aekenmatt is a reflection in extremis of what is happening throughout Switzerland. The number of farms supplying milk to dairies or cheese-making plants is continually declining. Of the 26,000 dairy farms recorded six years ago, 6,000 have now disappeared. In July 2016, the number of dairy cows stood at a record low of 550,000. Farmers whose milk ultimately ends up in shops are under severe pressure. Like Burren, they currently receive very poor prices. Dairy farmers whose produce is used for cheese-making are slightly better off. However, only around 40 % of the milk is turned into cheese.

Burren revealed that it is not just falling earnings that concern him but also the uncertainty caused by short-term price fluctuations. While the price of milk only goes up or down by a few cents from month to month, when applied to the 12,000 litres of milk that he delivers on average each month, this means significant fluctuations in income: “It would be like a workman finding out halfway through the month whether he is going to have 300 Swiss francs more or less in his pocket at the end of the month.” A clear trend is evident when the overall picture is considered. The income generated on farms fell by 6.1 % in Switzerland last year. The milk price is a key factor in this decline. It might seem that the problem could easily be resolved if farmers increased the size of the herds in their cowsheds. Burren nevertheless points out that this would require investment that would barely pay off owing to the poor milk prices.

More and more farms with small numbers of cows are therefore giving up dairy farming while the number of large farms with 100 cows or more has doubled within 10 years. On balance, only slightly less milk is being produced but under increasingly industrial conditions. Burren calls it a trend towards “factories” where automated milking robots handle entire herds. “But the introduction of robots means there is no longer a relationship with the animals,” remarks the farmer from Aekenmatt.

The falling number of dairy cows and significant increase in the size of farms is gradually changing the appearance of rural Switzerland. “Lots of people have this notion that there will be a few cows grazing wherever you see lush green meadows in Switzerland,” says Burren. But the picture is changing. You either no longer see any cows at all or large herds of them on semi-industrial farms. Jürg Jordi, spokesperson for the Federal Office for Agriculture, shares this view: “In Switzerland, as a country of pastureland, dairy farming is not just a key sector of production, it also contributes to the Swiss landscape.” He also confirms: “We are observing a trend towards larger farms.”

Swiss high-yield animals

The relationship between humans and animals is changing more quickly than the landscape: “Farmers with 200 cows cannot look after individual animals as well as those with 20 cows,” says Burren. However, the approach to cows as livestock is also changing in the smaller sheds as traditional farmers with small herds are trying to make up for the poor milk price with increasingly high-yield cows. Breeder organisations boast that more and more cows are now exceeding the “magic number of 100,000 kilograms in a lifetime” each year. In layman’s terms, there is an increasing number of cows on Swiss pastures which have already supplied 100,000 litres of milk during their lifetime. The last dairy farmer in the village of Aekenmatt also sees himself as a traditionalist in this respect: “I am very much someone for whom increasing the milk yield is a target.” He supplies around a fifth more milk than his father Alfred did with the same number of cows in the shed. He is therefore pursuing a different approach to many younger Swiss farmers who no longer get subsidies for their produce but instead receive direct government payments, such as those for setting aside parts of the farm as environmental compensation areas which are used less intensively. This is also changing the landscape. Flower meadows with a diverse range of species between lush green high-yield meadows are an ever more common sight. Burren admits that he finds it hard to see himself as a “manager of the landscape” rather than a productive farmer.

It is the turn of the letter “W” in the cowshed this year. This year’s calves will be given a name beginning with this letter. Waldi and Wiki have been on the meadow for some time. They have recently been joined by the calf named Wellness. Wellness? There could be no starker contrast between the name of the calf and the mood in farming. Burren smiles: “Perhaps Wellness will manage to cheer us up a bit.”

Marc Lettau is an editor with “Swiss Review”

Radical change in Swiss farming

Swiss farming has been undergoing major structural change for years. “But that is certainly not just down to the milk price,” remarks Jürg Jordi, spokesperson for the Federal Office for Agriculture. Technical progress and significant changes in general conditions have also played a huge role. The low milk price is nonetheless an additional and direct factor in driving change: farming incomes are falling, farmers are attempting to make up for declining prices by producing more milk which has led to the price falling further and spurred structural change on. “The current prices farmers receive for dairy milk are so low that they are jeopardising the survival of many dairy farms,” explains Jordi. Guaranteeing production of Swiss milk is also at risk from a farming perspective. In other words, Swiss milk, which is quite simply part of the cultural heritage in terms of Swiss national identity, is finding itself under pressure.

The Swiss National Bank’s decision on 15 January 2015 to unpeg the Swiss franc’s exchange rate to the euro had huge ramifications, according to Reto Burkhardt from the umbrella organisation of Swiss dairy farmers, SMP: “This increased the price of Swiss cheese exports enormously. Exports were made difficult and import pressure grew. As a result, there was too much milk on the market in Switzerland in 2015 which drove prices down.”

There is sustained pressure from the low price of milk in the EU. The SMP is nevertheless calling upon Swiss supermarket chains to put up the price of dairy products. This is the only way to ensure the farmers at the start of the value chain are paid better. Burkhardt believes this demand is a logical step. Switzerland has some of the tightest animal welfare legislation which it also implements. Swiss farmers do not use any genetically modified fodder, and dairy farming makes environmental sense in Switzerland – a country with much pastureland. These are “all criteria that consumers recognise”.

The supermarket chains are at least willing to emphasise the “Swissness” of domestic dairy products more. Many of their products have carried a label since July that would have left people shaking their heads just a few years ago – “Swiss milk inside”.

Comments (17)
  • Tschol Wilhelm
    Tschol Wilhelm at 22.11.2016
    Es ist Bauer Burren anzuraten, sich angesichts der kaum endenden Milchschwemme weitergehende strategische Gedanken zu machen. Es stehen verschiedene Wege offen, der eine - hier angesprochen - eine Verbindung von touristisch orientierten Bodenbewirtschaftung, der andere verbunden mit einem Wechsel zu hochwertiger Fleichproduktion. Jeder der in die Alpen fährt, sei es is "Bärnpiet" oder is Wallis, der freut sich über den neuen frischen Mixt, der verbunden mit Agrotourismus den Besucher zum Direktkunden werden lässt. Ich wünsche Glück bei der Entscheidung.
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  • E. Kunkler
    E. Kunkler at 23.11.2016
    Wenn im Laden der Liter Milch nur 1 Franken kostet kann ja niemand erwarten dass ueberhaupt jemand einen Gewinn machen kann an Milch. Es ist eine Schande dass unsere Regierung nicht die Preise heraufsetzt und an der Grenze den Zoll erhoeht - wir brauchen ja sicher keine auslaendische Milch - und, schliesslich ist es ja unser Land und unsere Milch. Ist es nicht deren Aufgabe unser Land und unsere Buerger zu beschuetzen?

    In Amerika haben wir Walmart welcher auf der gleichen Basis operiert wie die EU - druecke den Preis lange genug und die kleine Konkurrenz wird bald den Laden schliessen!!

    Ich hoffe dass die kleinen Bauern einen guten Weg finden werden um die Lebensweise und die gesunde Tierhaltung weiterfuehren zu koennen.

    Jedesmal wenn ich in die Schweiz reise, verliebe ich mich wieder in die "Brown Cows" - da muss es doch etwas geben um dem ganzen "Schlamassel" zu helfen??

    Ich wuensche Allen Milch Bauern viel Glueck und hoffe dass die Befoelkerung realisiert was sie verlieren wird wenn sie nicht anfangen "Lokal" zu kaufen und die lokale Wirtschaft/Bauern zu unterstuetzen.

    Ich hoffe auch in Zukunft die schoenen "Brown Cows" wieder zu sehen.
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  • raymond luginbühl
    raymond luginbühl at 23.11.2016
    à force de produire industriellement,que vont devenir les fromages suisses? des portions de "machin" au goût de carton,comme cela se présente partout en europe,pourquoi ne pas produire "bio" et fabriquer du bon fraomage avec ce lait,l'agriculteur y trouverait son compte et le consommateur aussi.
    savez vous que pour avoir les mèmes nutriment qu'une pomme produite "bio",il faut 100 pommes de l'agriculture intensive.pensez y!
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    • Jean-Pierre Hoffer
      Jean-Pierre Hoffer at 23.11.2016
      Tout a fait d' accord avec vous , c' est quand meme triste d' en arriver la !
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  • Barbara Demoulin
    Barbara Demoulin at 23.11.2016
    en France les producteurs laitiers sont dans la même situation et cela a déjà causé beaucoup de drames. ceux qui se sortent le mieux sont rentrés dans un système "du producteur directement au consommateur" avec des associations comme l'Amap ou la ruche et toujours avec des produits de qualité et bio comme conseillé ci-dessus. Je suis sûre qu'en Suisse cette solution aura aussi sa chance! Bon courage à vous
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  • Philippe Simond
    Philippe Simond at 23.11.2016
    En France la production d'énergies alternatives a fait se développer des fermes usines qui turbine le méthane pour produire de l'énergie, le lait est un sous-produit de cette industrie il est proposé à un prix extraordinairement bas. L'Allemagne, développe également ce type d'élevage dans un but de production d'énergies alternatives au pétrole, quelle est la situation en Suisse? Il y a-t-il sur le marché une concurrence avec les fermes usines?
    Merci de m'éclairer sur ce point.
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  • Dieter Schelling
    Dieter Schelling at 24.11.2016
    Dieser Artikel verwirrt mich ein wenig und stimmt nicht völlig überein mit unseren Erfahrungen. Wir wohnen ein Teil des Jahre in Brugnasco bei Airolo. Das Dorf hat auch nur noch einen Bauer. Die Milch kann er für 73 Rappen an die Käserei in Airolo verkaufen (letztes Jahr waren es noch 80 Rappen). Er hat viel und meist sehr steiles Weideland und etwa 70% seines Einkommens sind Flächenzulagen - und natürlich ohne diese Subventionen würde er sofort Bankrott gehen und das Land würde verganden. Wir kaufen unsere Milch direkt vom Hof und geniessen diese sehr. Wir machen damit auch ausgezeichneten Rahm, Yoghurt, Quark und Mascarpone. Wir bezahlen ihm einen Franken pro Liter. Vielleicht bilden wir es uns nur ein, aber wir finden diese Milch sehr viel besser als beispielsweise die Bio Milch von Coop. Diesen Sommer konnten wir kaum warten bis die Kühe von der Alp zurück waren. Was ich nun nicht verstehe ist warum solche Milch nicht ein Gütezeugnis kriegt (Beispielsweise: "Grasmilch") wofür Leute (wie wir) bereit wären mehr zu bezahlen. Warum bezahlen wir für Benzin 1.70, Bier 2 Franken und Wein 20 Franken? Warum wollen wir nicht bezahlen für qualitativ hochstehende Milch? Wenn wir zuviel Milch produzieren müsste die Landwirtschaftspolitik gegen die Massenproduktion mit viel Futterzusatz im Tiefland steuern. Dort gibt es Alternativen zur Milchproduktion die unser Bauer nicht hat.
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  • Jörn Malek
    Jörn Malek at 24.11.2016
    • alexandra
      alexandra at 29.11.2016
      yes, the dairy industry is based on lies and propaganda. with all the info available now it's amazing how people still don't get it. no one should be drinking milk once they are weaned from their own mother!
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  • Jean Marie ROBERT
    Jean Marie ROBERT at 24.11.2016
    L'Agriculture SUISSE est confrontée comme l'ensemble des agricultures du monde aux effets négatifs de la mondialisation : cours constamment à la baisse,spéculation( bourse) sur les produits agricoles; les productions laitières sont particulièrement concernées: certains pays en EUROPE ont fait un choix contestable de production industrielle du lait" usine à lait".
    Non seulement cela engendre une désertification rurale et par voie de conséquence un éco-système bouleversé mais a pour conséquence d'une standardisation des produits, alors que ce qui faisait la renommée de la SUISSE et de la FRANCE c'est grande variété de fromages de qualité
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  • Markus Ritter
    Markus Ritter at 25.11.2016
    In Northeast Wisconsin the large farms are producing manure that pollutes the ground water that many people use as their source of drinking water. It also pollutes Lake Michigan that now has extensive areas of algae.
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  • Hans Niederer
    Hans Niederer at 26.11.2016
    I would like to comment on the farm issue: If the small farms disappear so will the tourism. People who visit Switzerland are enchanted with the sight of cows in the beautiful countryside. Put this together with your building industries who are building all these Boxes of Houses that don't even look like they belong in Switzerland. People can see these Blocks at home. I would say Switzerland is in trouble especially when you look at the Politicians in Bern. Who in God's name is the EU to dictate what is supposed to be done with the Swiss milk? Switzerland needs a Government who has a backbone not a bunch of self serving -----. I visit Switzerland every year for 3-4 months. Every year it gets worse and someone needs to look out for Switzerland. Not just for the milk but in many other ways too.
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    • Walter Kupper
      Walter Kupper at 09.12.2016
      Bravo! My sentiments, exactly.
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    • Andreas Müller
      Andreas Müller at 15.12.2016
      Hans Niederer
      That's my words too and I agree with you!
      Switzerland our motherland is sold out to big company and lot more just look how owns them. To liberale is our System in Bern we should learn again to take care of our country for the next generations. It break my heart we I see back what happen the last few decades with our country and the friendly Swiss Citizen. The farmer should get a fair market price for their products with a minimum of benefits from the governement (tax payer) that it should be and all are happy. To much of regulation make it everything more expensive in every business that should cut down fast to change the system for a free farmer.
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  • Audrey Breed
    Audrey Breed at 26.11.2016
    This is a tragedy.
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  • alexandra
    alexandra at 29.11.2016
    I am always happy when I hear about an animal exploitation industry facing hard times. Even in a country like Switzerland, which compared to the rest of the world, has some of the highest standards for the treatment of cows and ecology. Of course, there will always be some who will stubbornly cling to habits which they see as traditions. Yet, I understand that more people are becoming aware in Switzerland, that even under the best conditions, exploitation is wrong and are acting on this by becoming vegan. Now if it is happening there, where conditions are better, surely it must happen everywhere where conditions are so much worse. When last I was there, one could not find any plant milk. Once people realize the benefits of drinking plant and nut milk and see the improvement in their health and the environment, even those who don't care about the injustice of enslaving, artificially inseminating, and kidnapping the offspring from cow will change their habits.
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  • Erwin Balli-Ramosb
    Erwin Balli-Ramosb at 03.12.2016
    Meine sehr geehrten Damen und Herren

    Grundsätzlich. Meine Eltern(RIP) waren Kleinbauern (5ha-Betrieb) vor ça 60Jahren, d.h. ohne die z.Z. grassierende Subventionitis- und Direktzahlungsorgie.
    Was ich nie verstehen werde ist das folgende.
    Ein Strukturwandel ist voraussehbar und lässt sich abfedern, VERHINDERN ABER NICHT.
    Warum zum Teufel hat man nicht schon vor langer Zeit damit begonnen, die jungen Bauern auf die, auf sie kommenden Aufgaben, vorzubereiten? Gemessen an der normalen Berufsausbildung (ich bin Schlosser, Mechaniker, Maschinentechniker,Betriebsingenieur)
    steht der Landwirt weitaus hinten an. Als ich vor 20 Jahren auswanderte genügte ein Jahr bei einem anderen Landwirt und ein Jahr zuhause mitzuarbeiten und die Berufsausbildung war abge-
    schlossen. Nota bene, das ist die Generation, die heute die Be-
    triebe führt.
    Da bleibt doch nur noch der zusätzliche reale Unsinn, dass man
    Futtermittel(importiert) zukauft, um damit Überschüsse zu produzieren, die mit erheblichen staatlichen Zuschüssen in die Oststaaten exportiert werden, um die dort produzierende Landwirtschaft kaputt zu machen.
    Da bin ich mit meinen 74 Jährchen doch glücklich, diesem Unsinn nicht noch lange zusehen zu müssen.
    Show Translation

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