GDE720 – Week 9 – 12: The Austrian Small Farmer Dilemma

The country that calls itself the “Land of Mountains,” Austria’s landscapes covered by the Alps, is most certainly known for its ski tourism. However, a little less known fact about Austria is that farming is also a vital industry and a large part of the nation’s cultural identity. The different landscapes across Austria offer various agricultural, dairy, and livestock farming possibilities. 

In my study, I will be focusing on the Eastern region of Austria, where conditions are most ideal for arable farming and where tourism is less prevalent than its western counterpart.

This Arable land in the East occupies around 1.33 million hectares of land, almost 50% of the total agricultural area in the country. The focus of domestic crop production is grain cultivation, including corn. (Bundesministerium Landwirtschaft Regionen und Tourismus, n.d.)

The continental climate offers cold and wet winters, but hot, dry summer days and cool nights are ideal for sugar beets, rapeseed, and sunflower. (Taste of Austria, n.d.) 

This region is also well known for its wine farming. It has a sizeable wine industry in the Wachau and Weinviertel of Lower Austria and the regions of Burgenland and Steiermark. 

ÖVP, or the Austrian People’s Party, has been a staunch supporter of farming in the country and has collaborated with Raiffeisen Bank to contribute around 1.9 billion euros per year, 61% of which comes from the EU pot to agricultural policy. (Huber, 2021) However, these figures, recorded in 2016, have been said to be unequally distributed in the country as farmers are funded according to area and yield. It is said that most funding goes towards the institutions of the Chamber of Agriculture instead. Private individuals also receive large portions of these subsidies merely because they own farmland, even if they are independently wealthy and make their primary income through other means. In a report from 2016, every fourth small farmer has quit in the ten years before then, despite these large subsidies. (Huber, 2018)

In 2021, European lawmakers reached an agreement on reforming the EU’s standard agricultural policy (CAP). In this new policy reform, redistribution of income support has been addressed better to support the needs of smaller and medium-sized farms. (European Commission, 2022) The EU countries were asked to develop national strategic plans as well. As these reforms are being discussed, the Association of Austrian Small and Mountain Farmers (ÖBV) is petitioning Federal Minister Elisabeth Köstinger to advocate double funding for the first 20 hectares of agricultural land to help preserve small-scale farming in Austria. (Huber, 2021)

„Die durchschnittliche Betriebsgröße liegt in Österreich derzeit bei 19,8 Hektar, kleine und mittlere Höfe bilden das Rückgrat des ländlichen Raumes. Wollen wir weiterhin lebendige Strukturen am Land, dann muss die Existenz dieser Höfe abgesichert werden. Es braucht attraktive Arbeitsplätze und Einkommen, gerade auch für junge Menschen“,

– Ludwig Rumentshofer, Vorstandsmitglied der ÖBV

“The average farm size in Austria is currently 19.8 hectares. Small and medium-sized farms form the backbone of rural areas. If we want to continue to have living structures in the country, then the existence of these farms must be secured. Attractive jobs and income are needed, especially for young people,” 

– Ludwig Rumentshofer, board member of the ÖBV

According to the European Commission, farmers in Austria suffer from fluctuating prices and increasing overhead costs. Farmers are advised to make more competitive offers, diversify their incomes, and expand their farms to overcome these challenges. (European Commission, 2020) It’s not as easy as this suggestion might claim to be, especially when subsidies are still being favored for the already rich. 

In 2019, the New York Times published a piece about the oligarchs who rule Hungary’s farming industry. The Times investigation found that Viktor Orban’s government auctioned off thousands of acres of land to friends and family. Then, under the EU’s standard agricultural policy, they qualify for millions in subsidies. (Gebrekidan, Apuzzo and Novak, 2019)

“Today, these subsidies help underwrite a sort of modern feudalism in which farmers are beholden to politically connected land, Barrons.” Gebrekidan, Apuzzo and Novak, 2019)

Austria is no exception, and while the situation is not as dire as it is in other former Soviet bloc countries, the dwindling number of small farmers is a cause for concern. In a conversation with an asparagus farmer in Mistelbach, I was told that it was a struggle for her family to make ends meet, relying only on one primary crop production for several reasons. One factor that stood out was the distribution of asparagus during the season. As supermarkets have taken over rural Austria, it is more commonplace for residents of villages to do their daily or weekly shopping there rather than stop by their local farmers to see what they have in stock. The competitive prices at supermarkets also mean that as an asparagus farmer, your profit margins are lowered to compete with imports. 

In conclusion, small farmers in Austria struggle to stay afloat given the challenges they face against unequal subsidies distribution, rising overhead costs, and fluctuating prices. Shopping habits also favor larger supermarkets over Bauernladen as they may be more convenient and affordable. So, before waiting for the new EU CAP to kick in next year, how can a community support system be designed to keep small farmers’ businesses running?

The Problem

In Austria, small farmers are facing a dire situation. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is often misused at the national level, and unequal distribution of farming subsidies often favors the rich over those who need it. As a result, studies have shown that four small farmers go out of business every year in Austria. If this situation continues, Austria will soon see the total extinction of small farmers, a culturally relevant industry, and better access to locally grown, organic produce.

The Need

The EU’s CAP is not the only thing to blame. Behaviors of shoppers often favor supermarkets over ‘Bauernladen’ for their convenience and affordability. As a result, small farmers, who also offer their products in these supermarkets, are losing a large profit margin. To counteract this, in rural Austria, these farmers often open their barn doors for easy shopping of their seasonal produce. However, many can and do go unnoticed by shoppers. Can a community support system be designed to keep the business of small farmers running?

The Solution

Using a community-first approach, farmers can be supported by technology to indicate when their barn doors are open and what products they have in stock. This can counter the behavior of rushing to the nearest supermarket and offer a slower, more thoughtful shopping experience, cutting out the middle man and allowing farmers to set a fair price point for themselves and the community at large.

Bauernladen

Bauerladen, the network across rural East Austria connecting farmers directly to consumers. This app allows consumers to choose from and explore seasonal produce available on any given day that can be purchased and picked up directly from the farmer’s barn.

The idea behind this network is to make these Bauernladen more accessible, and serve as a reminder that shopping possibilities exist outside of Spar, Billa, Penny, or whatever big supermarkets are currently taking over rural Austria.

I wanted the user flow of this app to be as simple as possible. No log-in or registration is required. No payments through the app. No fuss of unnecessary logistics entered into a system that already exists. It’s merely a place of advertisement for produce that’s ready to be purchased.

As illustrated above, the map featured here is zoomed in to a 20km radius around the user’s location. The orange spots indicate farmers in this area. The user can choose a farmer and go directly to see the produce listed on their specific page, or select the filter option and narrow down their choices by the type of produce made available by each farmer.

The result is a simple app that works in real-time to inform consumers that there are fresher alternatives in their immediate vicinity, and a support system for the struggling small farmers of Austria.

Reference list

Bundesministerium Landwirtschaft Regionen und Tourismus (n.d.). Getreideanbau und Getreidearten in Österreich. [online] Available at: https://info.bmlrt.gv.at/themen/landwirtschaft/landwirtschaft-in-oesterreich/pflanzliche-produktion/getreide/Getreide.html#:~:text=Das%20Ackerland%20nimmt%20in%20%C3%96sterreich.

European Commission (2020). Financial needs in the agriculture and agri-food sectors in Austria. [online] Available at: https://www.fi-compass.eu/sites/default/files/publications/financial_needs_agriculture_agrifood_sectors_Austria.pdf.

European Commission (2022). The new common agricultural policy: 2023-27. [online] European Commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/key-policies/common-agricultural-policy/new-cap-2023-27_en#:~:text=The%20new%20legislation%2C%20which%20is.

Gebrekidan, S., Apuzzo, M. and Novak, B. (2019). The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions. The New York Times. [online] 3 Nov. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/03/world/europe/eu-farm-subsidy-hungary.html.

Huber, A.M. (2021). Kleinbauern fordern per Petition mehr Unterstützung. [online] Dolomitenstadt. Available at: https://www.dolomitenstadt.at/2021/01/25/kleinbauern-fordern-per-petition-mehr-unterstuetzung/.

Huber, P. (2018). Kleinbauern sterben aus, Großbauern und Agrarkonzerne werden gefördert. [online] Kontrast.at. Available at: https://kontrast.at/kleinbauern-sterben-aus/.

Taste of Austria (n.d.). Facts on Agriculture. [online] Taste of Austria. Available at: https://www.tasteofaustria.org/facts-on-agriculture.

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