To this day, the government in Switzerland has never intervened in any area of the economy to the extent of its intervention in agriculture. It controls production, grants subventions and guarantees prices and sales quantities. It also protects producers by imposing import duties and promoting exports.
Agriculture between market and politics
The exceptional position of agriculture was documented in Swiss legislation in 1893. It also had a strong political advocate in the form of the Swiss Farmers' Association. Founded in 1897 and based in Brugg, the association rapidly developed into a powerful lobby organisation under the guidance of its first secretary, ETH professor Ernst Laur (1895-1964). Together with the state, he promoted the modernisation of agriculture and linked it to the objectives of nutritional and social policy.
The state assigned sovereign duties to agricultural organisations in many areas. During the First World War, the Central Association of Swiss Milk Producers (ZMSV) was responsible for the supply of milk and cheese in towns and cities. In 1921, the ZMSV evolved into the Swiss Cheese Union (1858-2000). The food shortage and social crisis at the end of the First World War resulted in the development of subvention and control policies. The close ties between the state and farmers' associations persist to this day.
1929: a farmer becomes a federal councillor
The farmers' political influence was strengthened further still by the founding of political parties and their integration in the conservative alliance of the Bürgerblock. One of their own, Rudolf Minger (1895-1965), was elected to the Federal Council in 1929. Minger was a member of the Bernese Farmers', Tradesmen and Citizens' Party (Bauern-, Gewerbe- und Bürgerpartei, BGB) founded in 1918. During the threatening era of the 1930s and 1940s, the ideal of a healthy farming community served as a counter-model to the iniquity and alienation of the city. The "intellectual defence of the nation" during the Second World War made the peasantry the central point of reference of the national identity.
In the years after the war, the growth of the industry and services segment and the economic boom led to adjustments to agricultural policy. Modernisation and industrialisation placed farms under ever greater pressure, forcing many farmers to abandon their businesses and leading as a result to the so-called “death of farmers”. Ecology and globalisation have represented a challenge to agriculture since the 1980s.
Broad field of interventions
For decades, the state intervened directly in the field of agriculture, not only in the form of subventions but also by actively promoting exports. Accordingly, the documentation on agriculture to be found in the Swiss Federal Archives is varied and extensive. It is contained in the fonds of the Federal Office for Agriculture (1882-1994), the former Division for Agriculture (1855-1979) and the fonds of those departments responsible for, for example, land rights, forestry or the export economy. Additionally, the private archives of the agronomist and later Federal Councillor Friedrich Traugott Wahlen (1848-1985) and the depots of the Swiss Milk Commission (1922-1946) and the Swiss Cooperative for Grain and Animal Feed (1932-1997) are also available for research.
Tips for further research
- Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with, among others, articles on farmers (ger) and agricultural policy (ger).
- Archives of Agricultural History: independent archive for agricultural research.
- Archives of Contemporary History at the ETH Zurich: the estate of Fritz Bigler (1899-1983), exponent of the Farmers' Movement and Young Farmers' Movement; partial estate of the agronomist and subsequent Federal Councillor Friedrich Traugott Wahlen (1899-1985).
- Swiss Farmers' Association
Publications of the Federal Archives
Baumann Werner, Moser Peter, Subventionen für eine mächtige Bauernlobby? Ursachen und Auswirkungen der staatlichen Agrarsubventionen 1880–1970, in: Studien und Quellen 26 (2000), p. 157-178.
Graf Christoph, Tschabold Eduard, Der Nachlass von Bundesrat Rudolf Minger (1881-1955). Eine Analyse des Bestands J1.108, published by the Swiss Federal Archive ("Inventare" series), Bern 1981.
Graf Christoph, Tschabold Eduard, Rudolf Minger als Förderer der schweizerischen Landwirtschaft und Landesverteidigung. Der Berner Bauernbundesrat im Spiegel seines Nachlasses, in: Studien und Quellen 6 (1980), p. 7-111.
Schnyder Damian, Zwischen Absatzförderung und humanitärer Hilfe. Ursachen und Auswirkungen der staatlichen Agrarsubventionen 1960-1972, in: Studien und Quellen 19 (1993), p. 460-477.
Last modification 15.12.2015