Diver­sity grows out of diversity

Agricultural products can only be diversified if the entire value chain gets involved.

Growing in size but shrin­king in number: Switzerland’s farms are heading in one direc­tion only, and this trend is conti­nuing apace. The Fede­ral Statis­ti­cal Office recor­ded 48,344 farms in 2022, a figure which has been on the decline for deca­des. In 1985, Switz­er­land was home to 98,759 farms. Over the same period, the area culti­va­ted by each farm has deve­lo­ped in precis­ely the oppo­site direc­tion: it has more than doubled and is now 21.6 hecta­res, on average. The number of farms with more than 30 hecta­res has skyro­cke­ted over this time­span, jumping from around 4,000 to more than 11,300. Conver­sely, there are just 7,000 farms mana­ging five hecta­res or less, compared to more than 32,000 in 1985. The small­hol­der farmers’ asso­cia­tion is seeking to combat this trend. This chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­tion of farmers and consu­mers is commit­ted to support­ing small and medium-sized farms within Switzerland.

They’re keen to retain diver­sity – in every respect. ‘Small-scale farms aren’t auto­ma­ti­cally more sustainable, or large-scale farms less diverse,’ says Patri­cia Mariani, Co-Mana­ging Direc­tor. ‘But farm diver­sity per se is of great importance, and we need to preserve it.’ Every farm is diffe­rent and sets its own, indi­vi­dual prio­ri­ties. Conver­sely, an area home to large farms has more in common with indus­trial farming and is commen­su­ra­tely neater.

A vast array of varieties

Farm diver­sity is also a crucial criter­ion for Béla Bartha, Mana­ging Direc­tor of ProS­pe­cieRara (PSR). This foun­da­tion is commit­ted to protec­ting tradi­tio­nal varie­ties. Bartha’s efforts to achieve an array of varie­ties see him take a step back­wards – focu­sing on the stage before plants are grown on farms. ‘First of all, we need seed diver­sity among produ­cers,’ he says.

Nowa­days, there are just a handful of major produ­cers, and convin­cing them to get on-board with tradi­tio­nal seed varie­ties is a tricky task. The situa­tion is made more chal­len­ging by the fact that, until 2010, farmers in Switz­er­land were only able to grow and market varie­ties on a large scale if they were included in the Fede­ral Government’s offi­cial list.

Tight regu­la­ti­ons

‘Seeds are subject to tigh­ter regu­la­ti­ons than almost any other area,’ says Béla Bartha, adding: ‘Before we can even talk about getting more diver­sity in the fields, we need produ­cers who are willing to create the quan­ti­ties of seeds requi­red. Plus, we need the right condi­ti­ons so the rele­vant varie­ties can be grown.’ As a result, he also sees provi­ding a grea­ter selec­tion of varie­ties as a socie­tal endea­vour. Today, conven­tio­nal growing systems aren’t the only option available: there are also alter­na­ti­ves that are better at inte­gra­ting grea­ter variety into produc­tion. ‘People should have easy access to a wide variety of good-quality seeds.’ You need to work with a certain quan­tity to make produ­cing a parti­cu­lar kind of seed wort­hwhile. PSR does this by selling diffe­rent products from the same variety via diffe­rent chan­nels. They don’t just provide the toma­toes you get on the Coop’s shel­ves: they also sell the same tomato variety as a seed­ling in the PSR market or as seeds in hard­ware stores. We can’t simply assume that major retail­ers will stock old varie­ties. In fact, this might initi­ally seem rather dubious: ‘There’s proba­bly no colla­bo­ra­tion between a major retailer and a conser­va­tion orga­ni­sa­tion quite like it in Europe,’ says Béla Bartha. He sees it as hugely important for their mission. As he puts it: ‘You can die virtuous, or you can engage in this dialo­gue.’ PSR wants to make this diver­sity acces­si­ble to a wider audi­ence, using every chan­nel at its dispo­sal to do so. The only way to gene­rate demand is if people come into cont­act with this diver­sity when, say, they’re doing their shop­ping. Ulti­m­ately, this also helps make tradi­tio­nal varie­ties profi­ta­ble. Despite all the efforts, there is still a gap – and it’s hard to bridge this, finan­ci­ally spea­king, via the value chain: PSR tends to work with small quan­ti­ties of seeds when preser­ving vari­ants. ‘If a farmer is inte­res­ted in a parti­cu­lar seed, we first need to increase the volume of that seed available,’ says Béla Bartha. Howe­ver, it can take four to five years until the desi­red quan­tity is reached. ‘This can stifle demand,’ he says. As a result, PSR needs to build up an appro­priate quan­tity of promi­sing seeds in advance, keeping them ready for any produ­cers inte­res­ted in them so they can imme­dia­tely start produ­cing them for the trade. In addi­tion, Béla Bartha notes that produ­cing large quan­ti­ties of seeds also helps boost the quality of the varie­ties preser­ved. This advance invest­ment cannot be re-finan­ced commer­ci­ally. As a result, ProS­pe­cieRara depends on support from foun­da­ti­ons for this, too.

More than 5,600 varieties

PSR’s work has protec­ted more than 5,600 tradi­tio­nal varie­ties. To achieve this, they turn to a network of over 500 volun­teer farmers, seed produ­cers and colla­bo­ra­tors who protect the varie­ties in ques­tion. They make sure they’re preser­ved ‘on farm’ (which can also be in someone’s garden). ‘Every year, we grow around a third of all the varie­ties,’ says Béla Bartha. ‘Our network increa­ses the varie­ties every year, ther­eby rene­wing the seed stocks, and sends part of them back to our head­quar­ters in Basel.’ By being grown time and again, the varie­ties are able to conti­nuously adapt to an ever-chan­ging envi­ron­ment. ‘Varie­ties even adapt to the prefe­ren­ces of indi­vi­dual growers,’ he says, ‘as every single person working with us, whether they’re plan­ting up a large field or a garden, has a parti­cu­lar image in mind when choo­sing plants they want to harvest seeds from later.’ These indi­vi­dual prefe­ren­ces (images of the variety) and growing methods ulti­m­ately impact the appearance and charac­te­ristics of a parti­cu­lar variety. A region’s climate also plays a key role: in a dry year, charac­te­ristics can deve­lop differ­ently than in a wet year. As a result, the vari­ant chan­ges all the time, even though the type is to be preser­ved as much as possi­ble through ongo­ing culls. Conser­ving varie­ties ‘on farm’ is ther­e­fore a dyna­mic task. ‘We want to retain this dyna­mism and adap­ta­bi­lity within our popu­la­ti­ons,’ says Béla Bartha. As a result, it’s important to the foun­da­tion that lots of people get invol­ved in its conser­va­tion efforts. In this respect, PSR doesn’t func­tion as a stan­dard gene bank that multi­plies the seeds, free­zes them, and only defrosts them every 50 years: this prevents them from conti­nu­ally adap­ting to the environment.

Preser­ving knowledge

Exci­ting prospects

Diver­sity among produ­cers is contin­gent upon a diverse custo­mer base. Lots of small-scale and medium-sized farms sell their products directly to consu­mers and local busi­nesses, such as small village cheesemonger’s, butcher’s and restau­rants. Some are even orga­nised as coope­ra­ti­ves, distancing them­sel­ves some­what from the over­ar­ching pricing pres­su­res exer­ted by whole­sa­lers. Direct sales have picked up in recent years. While just 7,000 farms sold their products directly to consu­mers in 2010, this figure was 12,600 in 2020. Patri­cia Mariani belie­ves that this is an exci­ting finan­cial oppor­tu­nity for small farms, in parti­cu­lar. ‘If you’re working with small volu­mes, a farm shop can be the perfect chan­nel,’ she explains. ‘A large farm is deal­ing with much bigger quan­ti­ties. They need a higher level of frequency if they want to sell ever­y­thing.’ Farm shops saw an uptick in popu­la­rity among consu­mers during the pande­mic, in parti­cu­lar. Howe­ver, the trend also reve­als the limits of this chan­nel. Patri­cia Mariani notes that desire and reality don’t always over­lap: demand plum­me­ted after the pande­mic. There are many poten­tial reasons for this. While visi­ting farm shops can be a labo­rious, time-consum­ing task, oppor­tu­ni­ties can be found on alter­na­tive chan­nels. Subscrip­tion services that can be purcha­sed online give farmers the chance to deli­ver their products straight to consu­mers at regu­lar inter­vals, while products focu­sed on the cate­ring trade enable farmers to market their wares on their farm itself.

Direct cont­act with customers

New sales chan­nels go hand-in-hand with new possi­bi­li­ties – and new tasks. Patri­cia Mariani explains that farmers need to get in direct cont­act with custo­mers: ‘If they do that, though, they’ll have a real edge,’ she says. ‘They’ll be in direct dialo­gue with their consu­mers,’ who can share feed­back and appre­cia­tion. Plus, the farmer will learn more about what they prefer and what they want – and what they’re not happy with. Farming and food produc­tion are beco­ming tangi­ble; they are no longer merely theo­re­ti­cal concepts. This is crucial. If consu­mers are to request diver­sity, they need to know it exists. ‘This is the only way to change consu­mer beha­viour,’ says Béla Bartha. He evokes the range of toma­toes stocked in super­mar­kets to illus­trate this. Twenty years ago, the toma­toes on offer were perfectly round and red. Today, cherry toma­toes, beef toma­toes and yellow toma­toes are all stan­dard opti­ons. Even large beef­steak toma­toes are no longer an exotic variety. ‘People say that farmers only eat what they know,’ quotes Béla Bartha. ‘And that’s often the case for consu­mers, too. They tend to be rather conser­va­tive when it comes to choo­sing food­s­tuffs. Brin­ging “new”, unfa­mi­liar products back in the form of tradi­tio­nal, oft-forgot­ten vari­ants requi­res a great deal of commu­ni­ca­ti­ons work and persua­sion on as many chan­nels as possible.’

A data­base replete with knowledge

This very know­ledge is what Horst Licht­ner, Mana­ging Direc­tor of the KEDA – Kuli­na­ri­sches Erbe der Alpen foun­da­tion is keen to protect. KEDA runs the Culi­na­rium Alpi­nium from a monas­tery buil­ding in Stans. The foun­da­tion has a turbu­lent past. Foun­ded back in 2016, it under­went a good few chan­ges before COVID-19 made its work even harder. Various teams spent years trying to find a struc­ture that worked well.

‘I’m the third Mana­ging Direc­tor in as many years,’ says Horst Licht­ner. ‘My job is to enable people to expe­ri­ence Alpine cuisine.’ He seems opti­mi­stic that the trend is slowly but surely stabi­li­sing. Howe­ver, the task is not an easy one. ‘In truth, we’re a start-up,’ he explains. They’ve got nume­rous projects on the go. The Culi­na­rium Alpi­num descri­bes itself as a kind of world heri­tage site. ‘The Culi­na­rium Alpi­num is a highly complex beast. We’ve cons­truc­ted a cate­ring faci­lity in the monas­tery, are brin­ging regio­nal cuisine to life and are trying to deve­lop this towards Alpine culinary culture,’ says Horst Licht­ner. In addi­tion, the Culi­na­rium Alpi­num team is working on buil­ding a know­ledge data­base. They’re still at the start of their jour­ney, but their Mana­ging Direc­tor is brim­ming with enthu­si­asm: ‘It’s simply fanta­stic,’ he says, ‘we’re preser­ving know­ledge of regio­nal cuisine. It’s like a kind of edible land­scape.’ The know­ledge touches on old varie­ties, but that’s not all it covers. Know­ledge about growing them or prepa­ring them – as detailed in recipes that have been handed down – is just as valuable. Howe­ver, unco­ve­ring this know­ledge and putting it in a form where it can be conser­ved is no mean feat. ‘Much of this know­ledge is passed down some­where, and it may solely exist in verbal form. This is the very know­ledge we want to preserve,’ says Horst Licht­ner. The only way to achieve this is via count­less inter­views with people.

Turning old into new

The Culi­na­rium Alpi­num wants people to be able to access this know­ledge. ‘Our aim has got to be to pique people’s curio­sity,’ says Horst Licht­ner. He thinks there’s room for impro­ve­ment here: in his view, people aren’t inqui­si­tive enough. Plus, there are count­less stories waiting to be disco­vered and told. There is a huge amount of poten­tial for growth. Howe­ver, beha­viou­ral chan­ges are needed to get people exci­ted about this know­ledge. ‘Encou­ra­ging people to change the way they act is one of the hardest things,’ he says, ‘but we need to have the courage to forge this path.’ Main­tai­ning the status quo isn’t an option, in his opinion. After all, food is a crucial part of life: every day, we spend hours eating and drin­king. It’s about nutri­tion and plea­sure, an expe­ri­ence freigh­ted with emotion. ‘We can use these emoti­ons to connect with people, enthuse them, show them that things taste good and let them smell them,’ says Horst Licht­ner. He calls for us to turn away from the super­mar­ket approach, where we’ve got used to seeing straw­ber­ries on the shel­ves year-round – some­thing initi­ally viewed as cultu­ral progress. ‘We need to see things with fresh eyes, and we need to be part of this process,’ he contends. ‘This is the only way our planet has a future.’ Béla Bartha belie­ves that solu­ti­ons for the future can be found in tradi­tio­nal varie­ties from the past. He notes that certain old varie­ties have proper­ties that even make them better suited to new envi­ron­men­tal condi­ti­ons, such as vari­ants from Valais or the Grisons which are used to dry, conti­nen­tal summers. Heir­loom cabbage varie­ties can form basal leaves that spread across the ground. In turn, they can prevent weeds from growing and gene­rate a damp micro­cli­mate between the soil and the leaf, protec­ting it from drying out. Alter­na­tively, there are grains with large root systems that can absorb huge quan­ti­ties of water and nutri­ents within a short space of time. These proper­ties are often bred out for effi­ci­ency reasons, as they are repla­ced by arti­fi­cial ferti­li­ser and wate­ring. ‘It’s clear that preser­ving these old varie­ties is a logi­cal approach. This approach is also ripe with poten­tial when it comes to safe­guar­ding our future food supply.’

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