Dairy farmers across Europe have been protesting against falling milk prices for months. The small-scale Alpine farms of Switzerland are among the producers hard hit by the dairy crisis.
Dairy farms in Switzerland are struggling to stay afloat
At a recent protest in the Swiss town of Fribourg, hundreds of tractors stopped traffic and angry dairy farmers swung cow bells and waved banners saying "ca suffit" (that's enough). It is one of just many demonstrations which have taken place over the past months throughout Switzerland. The farmers are angry about tumbling milk prices, caused by a combination of high production, decreased demand and a phasing out of milk quotas.
Dairy farmers are angry
According to Valentina Hemmeler from the farmer's union Uniterre, Swiss dairy farmers, once regarded as the backbone of the country's agriculture, can't even afford to feed their cattle.
"We are here to demand a fair price for milk," she said, adding that the farmers were being paid approximately half of what they needed to cover the costs of production.
"The current price for milk is 0.55 Swiss francs (0.36 euro, $0.53), and we need one franc to go ahead with production."
Dwindling number of dairy farmers
The traditional Swiss celebration of Desalpes – when the herds of cows are brought down from the high alpine pastures for the winter – is not such a big event as it once was. This is because the number of dairy farmers in Switzerland is already half what it was 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, the Desalpes at the village of Charmey, 30 kilometers south of Fribourg, is still a day of celebration, with the cows wearing huge bells and crowns of flowers, and the farmer spruced up in traditional dress. The whole village comes is out to welcome them.
But despite the festivities, the atmosphere was strained at this year's Desalpes. In the village square where local produce was on sale, farmers simply gave their milk away.
"The price we are being paid per liter simply doesn't cover the cost of production any longer, said young farmer Bruno Cardineau, explaining the protest action.
"This is a quality product and the price should reflect that."
Geography makes it difficult to compete
Swiss dairy farms have steep plots of land – which limits the size of the herds. This means overheads are high, and the farms aren't especially competitive. They are also traditionally family affairs, with fathers handing over the business to their sons. Farmer Brunoi Fahrni, with three young boys, is beginning to realize that's probably not realistic in the current climate.
"I think the future looks very bleak for agriculture in Switzerland," he said. "Lots of farmers will just give up; we can't go on like this."
The Alps are the perfect place for dairy farms, farmers say
What's causing Swiss dairy farmers most bitterness is that no one disputes the quality of their product - Swiss milk and cheese are famous worldwide. In addition, Switzerland's terrain is well suited to dairy farming. Farmer's union representative Hemmeler believes milk is a "perfect" product for Switzerland, especially given the global food crisis.
"We have mountains (and) we have grass. It is really the region where we can produce milk," she said.
The Swiss farmers union believes many farmers will have to declare bankruptcy, if the milk price stays as low as it is.
Switzerland's parliament is due to debate the crisis in dairy industry later this year, but for some of these farmers taking their herds down to winter pastures, that may be too late.
Author: Imogen Foulkes (kh)
Editor: Rob Turner