Farmers and the Law Switzerland
Farmers and the Law Switzerland

Farmers and the Law – Switzerland

by Stuart Harrison of Middle Week Farm Ash Mill, Devon, UK

The discussions recently aired in the pages of the SFJ around small farmers and potential young small farmers’ access to land got me to thinking about the Swiss approach to the issue.

Now Switzerland is a nation renowned for timepieces, chocolate and secret bank accounts, none of which, I should confess, holds much interest for me. Yet given my even greater disdain for most politicians, I’ve always found the Swiss system of direct democracy, which emphasizes citizen participation and direct decision-making, an attractive alternative to the normal style of representative democracy favoured by many nations. I have often wondered why it has not been adopted by other nations? So far at least, it has a unique place in systems of national governance. They seem to value their small scale farmers as well, but more of that later.

Why the Swiss system of government is quite so attractive to me, and why others fail to see its manifest virtues, I cannot really say, but then I’m also rather fond of Bauernmalerei (pronounced: “Bow-urn-mall-er-eye”, meaning: “Farmer paintings”), a naive style of country artistic expression depicting farming, nature and the countryside popular in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, yet often seen as crude, childish, brash and unskilled by many art critics, so perhaps there is no accounting for my taste in either art or governance?

In most democratic nations across the world we, the voters, vote an obnoxious coterie of self-serving egotists in for a few years, and then, once we are thoroughly fed up with them, we chuck them out, and vote in more of the same. Mostly nothing much changes, blame gets thrown about, there is the odd scandal, money gets spent in vast quantities, and then the cycle repeats.

I guess there must be some advantages to our system? For a start, having only to choose those who must decide all things, we can at least lay blame without feeling any personal guilt, and we may then look scornfully on from afar having abdicated all responsibility for any outcome, good or bad.

The Swiss political system is a little different, run as it is, by a combination of federalism, localism and direct democracy through referenda. Citizens have the power to challenge or propose legislation through popular initiatives, which require a certain number of signatures to be placed on the ballot. Additionally, any law passed by the federal parliament can be subjected to a mandatory referendum if a certain number of citizens request it. This allows Swiss citizens to directly influence the legislative process and have a say in important decisions.

The system tends to promote consensus, cooperation and compromise. In my opinion, it is more likely than not to lead to fair, stable governance with the inclusion of diverse perspectives and a population invested in both decision making and outcomes. So far so good, but what does this have to do with farming and the law?

Farmers and the Law Switzerland

While the Swiss system of government might already be familiar to some, what is less well know is that Switzerland has a longstanding tradition of valuing and protecting small farmers and their farmland and insisting on its use solely for agricultural purposes. In doing this it takes stringent measures to prevent farmland becoming an investment tool or falling to industrial or suburban development. The country recognizes the importance of preserving its agricultural heritage, ensuring food security, and maintaining a sustainable environment. Swiss law protects the nation’s farmland, and actively promotes local family farms and is enshrined in the Swiss Confederation Constitution which explicitly states that the Confederation and the Cantons (Swiss states) shall ensure the preservation of agricultural land.

This constitutional provision states:

“The Confederation shall ensure that the agricultural sector, by means of a sustainable and market-oriented production policy, makes an essential contribution towards: a) the reliable provision of the population with foodstuffs; b) the conservation of natural resources and the upkeep of the countryside; c) a decentralized population settlement of the country.”

To implement this constitutional mandate, Switzerland has enacted laws and regulations at the federal and cantonal levels. The Swiss Federal Act on Agriculture (LAA) aims to promote sustainable agriculture, protect farmers and farmland, and ensure the availability of highquality food for the population, while at the same time valuing the countryside and promoting rural community cohesion.

Under the LAA, the Swiss government has established a system of agricultural land zoning, where farming activities are prioritized and protected. The zoning regulations restrict nonagricultural development, preventing urban sprawl and preserving farmland solely for farming purposes.

The LAA imposes strict restrictions on the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. Any change in land use from agricultural to non-agricultural requires a permit, and such permits are only granted under very exceptional circumstances. This stringent control over land conversion helps maintain farmland and prevents its loss to urbanization or industrialization.

Swiss government policies promote environmentally friendly farming practices, such as organic farming and integrated pest management. It provides financial incentives and support programs to farmers who adopt sustainable agricultural methods. These measures not only protect farmland but also contribute to the preservation of biodiversity and the reduction of harmful environmental impacts.

In addition Switzerland has established agricultural land reserves to ensure the availability of farmland for future generations. The Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) manages these reserves, which consist of high-quality agricultural land. The reserves serve as a buffer against the loss of farmland due to urbanization or natural disasters. They can be used to compensate for the conversion of agricultural land to other uses in the few exceptional cases where this occurs.

Farmers and the Law Switzerland

Swiss law recognizes the importance of family farming and explicitly provides measures to facilitate the transfer of farms from one generation to the next, ensuring the continuity of farming activities and preventing land speculation. This support helps maintain the agricultural character of the land and prevents its consolidation into large-scale industrial agricultural operations, as well as building community ties and ensuring its people are invested in the future of agriculture.

It is worth noting that the protection of farmland in Switzerland is not limited to legal measures alone. The Swiss government actively engages in agricultural policy planning and consultation with stakeholders, including farmers, environmental organizations, and local communities. This participatory approach tries to ensure that the interests of all parties are considered in decision-making processes related to farmland protection. The commitment to preserving small farms is rooted in several factors, including cultural heritage, environmental sustainability, and the desire to maintain local food production as a national strategic security asset.

One of the key policies employed by Switzerland to preserve small farms is through the implementation of agricultural subsidies. The government provides financial support to farmers, with a particular focus on those operating smaller-scale operations. These subsidies help to offset the higher costs associated with small farms, such as limited economies of scale and higher labor requirements. By providing financial assistance, the government aims to ensure the economic viability of small farms and encourage their continued operation. Many small farms in Switzerland have been farmed by the same families for many generations and those working on them always have an eye to the future and are invested in the preservation of the natural environment, the quality of their agricultural products and the look of the countryside.

Increasingly consumers in Switzerland value locally produced, sustainable food, which further supports the viability of small farms. Government promotes direct marketing and local food systems. Farmers are encouraged to sell their products directly to consumers through farmers’ markets, farm shops, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. This direct connection between farmers and consumers seeks to provide farmers with a fair price for their products, fosters a sense of local community and strengthens the local economy.

The Swiss government recognizes the cultural significance of small farms. Traditional farming practices and the preservation of rural landscapes are seen as integral to Swiss identity. The government supports initiatives that promote traditional farming methods, including the preservation of heritage breeds, maintenance of traditional meadows, and the upkeep of traditional farm buildings as well as the continued use and training of traditional rural skills. These efforts are seen as a way to preserve the cultural heritage associated with small-scale farming and contribute to the preservation of traditional Swiss landscapes.

Farmers and the Law Switzerland

It is clear that not all in the Swiss garden is quite as rosy as I might have painted it. The preservation of small farms in Switzerland is not without its challenges. The high cost of land, limited availability of agricultural labor, changes in working patterns amongst the young and competition from larger-scale operations which seek to try to consolidate farms into larger units whenever possible, pose significant obstacles for small farmers. In September 2022 a national referendum vote which sought to improve animal welfare standards on farms and ban intensive battery style enclosure of animals was narrowly lost. Biodiversity has also suffered in recent years, particularly in lower lying areas of the country, where more intensive farming has begun to have an impact on the natural flora and fauna.

In common with other nations, young peoples’ access to farming in Switzerland is a real issue. Current agricultural law and policy does in practice represent something of a closed shop to anyone other than old farming families. The economic barriers to starting a farm in Switzerland from scratch can be huge, particularly for aspiring farmers from non-agricultural families. In common with other nations a large number of older farmers are beginning to give up their activities either through age, or because of financial pressures and the difficulty in making small farming pay in a modern profit-oriented world. As some small farms start to disappear, young people who are not from farming families struggle to take over these farms because of the high cost of land acquisition. There is a growing awareness of this issue in Switzerland and the administration of the Geneva canton in particular has begun to look at ways to improve access to farming for the young. I imagine that as the Swiss seem culturally wedded to small farming, they will eventually engineer a way of ensuring that their young people can take over farms, but I imagine there will be some pretty hefty challenges on the way.

While problems undoubtedly exist, the Swiss government’s commitment to supporting small farms through subsidies, regulations, and marketing initiatives has helped to mitigate them. All things considered it’s clear that Switzerland is doing more than most nations to ensure the continued existence of large scale, small-scale agriculture.

Of course, I’m not certain if the Swiss blueprint for encouraging and promoting small farms would work everywhere. Switzerland is a relatively small country with a population of less than 9 million souls. In the U.K. and elsewhere there are lucrative redevelopment opportunities for farmers, and tighter control of farmland and associated development opportunities would probably be unpopular. While Switzerland has implemented a range of strategies to preserve small farms, its unique cultural and societal history has probably equipped it better than many nations for this sort of approach. Any proposed restrictions upon commercial freedoms are almost guaranteed to send shockwaves through the ranks of the media, politicians, financiers, and large corporations. It’s unlikely that many nations would look favourably on what are undoubtedly closed shop arrangements in agriculture and restrictive market practices. However, some of the techniques applied by the Swiss, such as agricultural subsidies, zoning rules, inheritance laws, sustainable farming practices, direct marketing initiatives, land reserves, and small farming cultural preservation initiatives, might offer opportunities for other nations to maintain a more diverse agricultural landscape and support the economic viability of small-scale farming operations.

My wife is convinced that the secret to all this is to place legal agricultural ties on farmland and buildings that force those who purchase it to actually produce agricultural products from the land through farming either themselves or through tenancy arrangements with other individuals. She thinks that by law, no other activity should be permitted on land that has been previously farmed but farming. No conversion of barns into vacation lets, no new housing or industrial developments, no new farming leisure facilities, and that any failure to conduct productive agriculture should be penalised by fines and ultimately by land confiscation. But then she was never one to go easy on anyone… woebetide me if I enter the house with my boots on!

Farmers and the Law Switzerland


Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are the home of this rustic art form. The techniques used in Bauernmalerei vary, but they often involve a combination of freehand painting, stenciling, and sponging. Artists, often farmers or others deeply embedded in traditional rural crafts, apply multiple layers of paint to create depth and texture, and then add intricate details using fine brushes. The color palette typically includes bright and contrasting hues, such as red, blue, green, and yellow.

Bauernmalerei has a rich history and has been passed down through generations, with each region and community developing its own unique style and motifs. It reflects the cultural heritage and traditions of rural life, capturing the simplicity, beauty, and charm of the countryside. I love it.