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Young and farming in Austria

Our agricultures are utterly different. But could Austrian strategies for helping young farmers work in Canada too?

The Mathis farm from front, with the alpine terrain that adds to the farm challenge.

Clouds shroud the mountains in grey, and snow covers the cherry trees and the pastures. “You’re missing a spectacular alpine view,” comments Jakob Mathis, wiping his hands on his jeans before shaking hands. They’ve just finished trimming hooves on the heifers.

Mathis leads the way into the large old farmhouse, stopping by the newly renovated heifer stall. “This is all part of the building project,” says the 32-year-old farmer and he shows me what he’s really excited about, a bright modern cheese-making facility that will open new opportunities for the farm.

A Canadian farmer, though, might be equally interested by the funding he’s getting that makes it all possible, specifically a subsidy program for young farmers from the European Union (EU), under the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

In most of the western world, the average age of farmers is continually rising while young people exit rural areas at an alarming rate. In Canada, only 9.9 per cent of farmers are under the age of 40. In the EU only six per cent of farmers are under the age of 35.

The world needs young farmers. They secure our food, both in quantity and quality. They are the stewards of a good part of our environment. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, the EU is making concerted efforts to encourage and support its young farmers.

Jakob and Cornelia Mathis with family in new dairy facility. photo: Marianne Stamm

It’s an effort that Austria is pursuing vigorously, bringing its percentage of farmers under the age of 35 to almost 12 per cent, double the EU average. And it’s an effort the Mathis family is profiting from.

Cornelia and Jakob took over her father’s small alpine farm in 2014. Already in 2012 they’d purchased the neighbouring farm, which became home to the family of three children. The house was old, the only heat coming from the wood stove in the kitchen which also heats the big ceramic stove in the living room. That wasn’t a deterrent to the Mathises. “We always dreamed of our own farm,” Cornelia, pregnant with their fourth child, enthusiastically tells me. With the acquisition of the farm they became eligible for designated funds for young farmers from the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) program.

The EU subsidy program has two pillars, the first provides a basic payment to farmers, thereby guaranteeing income stability and remunerating farmers who provide public goods. “The complementary payment for young farmers is a top-up that a young farmer receives in the first five years after starting out and comes in addition to the basic payment. It is calculated depending on the farm size,” explains Alessia Musumara, secretary general of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA).

EU member states must make up to two per cent of their national envelopes for direct payments from the EU available for the complementary payout. The total payout per farmer must not exceed 25 per cent of the basic payment. Eligible farmers must be under 40 years of age, setting up a farm and leading it for the first time, or have set up in the past 10 years. Farmers must also comply with program farming methods and procedures which are increasingly based on environmentally sustainable agriculture practices.

A different scale

The Mathises organically farm 22 alpine hectares (55 acres), milk 12 cows and 15 goats, and hold 100 laying hens. Cheese, eggs and the meat from the calves and young goats are marketed directly to the customer.

A nice hobby farm, Canadians will say. It’s definitely not a full-time farm for the Mathises either. Summers find Jakob and his family on the community pasture, where Jakob produces the rich cheese tasting of alpine herbs and grasses. In the winter he’s employed in his original trade as carpenter.

But now he is also stirring his own cheese vat. “We’ve always dreamed of processing our own milk, especially our goat milk,” Cornelia says. “And now it’s coming true!”

A 500-litre cheese vat will produce hard cheeses, a smaller 200-litre vat the soft cheeses. “Jakob will still do some off-farm work,” says Cornelia, laughing. “He couldn’t stay home all the time!”

The project was a big step for the young couple, with a considerable amount of risk. “We had to invest in the future of our farm if it was to be viable,” Jakob says. Everything was built with careful thought to possible expansion in the future.

It was also a step they couldn’t have taken without help from another component of the CAP program. Through the CAP, the EU recommends that member states utilize up to another two per cent of their total CAP subsidy funds for incentives for young farmers.

The Mathis farm from the back. photo: Marianne Stamm

Under this second pillar, two main measures are dedicated to rural development programs at national and regional levels. The first, which helped the Mathises build the dairy, is aimed at startup ventures, providing a one-time payment of up to 70,000 euros. “We had to present a comprehensive business plan to the administration board, which chooses the most viable projects to allocate funds to,” Jakob explains, adding, “A new cheese-making facility has a better chance than, say, a new milking system.”

That they are organic producers in a challenging alpine setting and have an agricultural education background helped them meet the necessary criteria. The second measure supports young farmers with the acquisition of physical assets such as new technology or machinery designed for meeting tighter environmental regulations.

“While pillar one payments are mandatory, pillar two payments are at this point only a recommendation,” says Andreas Kugler, secretary general of Austria’s Young Farmers Association. Austria is one of the countries utilizing this program to the fullest.

Free ag schooling

The process to apply for the payments is rather complex and challenging, not only for farmers, but also for the administrators in charge of distributing the grants. An applicant must be well informed and knowledgeable to be able to access funds, often resulting in farmers missing out on what they might be entitled to. “In Austria our problem is that we don’t have enough available funds, whereas in Slovakia, for example, less than one per cent of what would be possible is paid out.”

Kugler believes that has — besides other reasons — a lot to do with Austria’s profound education system. Not only is high-quality public schooling free, but so is post-secondary education.

Add to that Austria’s strong agriculture education system. Both Jakob and Cornelia Mathis attended an agricultural high school in Hohenems, paying only for room and board.

“The school provides such a diverse agricultural education,” Cornelia explains. “You can try everything out.” A modern dairy barn, greenhouses, orchards, mechanical and woodworking shops, and a variety of small animal projects ensure a high degree of hands-on training besides the regular high school curriculum. Everyone has chores to do — be it milking cows, mucking out the barn, watering and transplanting seedlings in the greenhouse, or picking apples in the orchard.

Farm-life in Austria: Is it time to cut hay, or are there birds still nesting? photo: Marianne Stamm

Most students go on to apprenticeships or to studies related to agriculture. Jakob completed a carpentry apprenticeship; Cornelia has a degree as a social worker. Their dream, though, was always to farm.

“Thirty young farmers in a high school classroom — that’s highly motivating,” Kugler says. “Ideas are shared, fleshed out and brought back to the farm.” He’s sure this is a strong contributor to the higher level of young farmers in Austria.

Austria maintains a strong network of farm consultants, available at little or no cost to the farmer. “Applications for basic payments must be filled out every spring,” Jakob explains. “Agriculture advisors come to our region and are very helpful in informing us of all the extra payments available. If I need more comprehensive information, I’ll go to the city offices that provide great services for a low cost.”

It can be easy to miss some of the top-up payments available to young farmers and to those farming under more adverse circumstances such as the alpine farms, as well as to organic farmers and to those using more environmentally sustainable farming practices.

“One of our commitments is to not cut our natural hay meadows before July 15th,” Jakob says. This allows time for small animals and birds to raise their young and insects to benefit from the flowering plants and their seeds, and it enhances the tourist experience. It also means a smaller hay yield, which explains the premium payment.

The European young farmers and the EU agriculture council recognize the need to encourage and facilitate generational transfers of farm land. Are the extra payments for young farmers having an impact? Kugler believes they are.

“If we didn’t have these complementary payments, then I’m quite sure fewer young farmers would be entering the agriculture field.” The CAP provides support to governments for courses enhancing knowledge and proficiency of young farmers. “A good comprehension of basic business principles is so important to the success of a farm,” Kugler goes on. “If you aren’t able to adequately financially plan and budget, business success will be diminished. With the steps Austria has taken in the last decades our farms have become more professional businesses.”

“Without me, you don’t eat”

Jakob Mathis isn’t so sure that it’s totally these payments that are bringing youth back to the farm. “They’re an incentive, but that can’t be the driving force. The decision must come out of personal commitment and passion.” It’s a love of farming that brings Austrian young farmers back — that and a new appreciation of the meaning of land, environmental stewardship and healthy food. “The young farmers in our valley are here because they are passionate about farming.”

Kugler would like to see farm income becoming less dependent on public funds. “The price for food should reflect its real value,” he insists “We need to educate non-farmers as to why so much of their tax money goes into agriculture and what happens to it. Farmers actually receive only a part of those funds.” Agriculture needs to work on promoting its image: “I am a farmer; I produce high-quality food. Without me, you don’t eat.”

“It is a big problem, that farmers should market themselves better,” Jakob admits. “But especially direct-marketing, as we do, takes time. Today it’s snowing, so we’ve got time. In the summer, we’re haying and I’m making cheese on the alp. Tourists come by, they want to talk. It’s important, though, for our image that I stop and make time for them, explaining what we are doing and why.”

“We underestimate the time our customers take,” Cornelia says of agriculture generally. “When I deliver our meat and eggs, I have to stop for the small talk about farm and kids.”

The Mathis farmhouse lies directly along a popular hiking path. A fridge is stocked with alp cheese, eggs and meat from their animals. The cashbox sits above the fridge. The honour system applies here.

“It’s not our goal to get rich in 10 years,” says Jakob, smiling at Cornelia. They believe in their future. They’re living the life they dreamed of, and there’s so much to look forward to.

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