Farming the Swiss way

Harry Siemens – We met Chris Wilda and his family at the local two-day market and festival where farmers and other craftspeople display and sell their local produce and handiworks.

Chris Wilda is an agronomist who worked for two years in Canada, one in Guelph, ON and the other in Lethbridge, AB, but lives in Sissach, Switzerland which is very close to where  I conducted this interview at a local market in Oltingen in the Canton Basel-Landschaft outside of Basel.

“I studied in Switzerland agriculture, at the university, and so basically when you study at the university you are there to learn engineering, the basics about agronomy, about agriculture,” Wilda. “I’ve made a PhD working with the French crop science, and later on I joined Sandoz Agro Canada as my first employer, where I was working in herbicide development and herbicide research.”

He worked and studied for one year in Guelph, ON with the company Sandoz Agro the first year in Guelph and the second year in Lethbridge, Alberta and returned to his homeland, Switzerland to work from the headquarters in Basel, which was Sandoz Agro at that time.

“I continued to work in the herbicide research. Later on, Sandoz was merged with Ciba to Novartis and later on Novartis Agro was merged with AstraZeneca and the name Syngenta appeared,” he said.

When asked to compare Canadian farming with farming in Switzerland his first comment and most obvious is the vast difference in size.

“Switzerland is small, you would think it’s a garden. I think the Canadian farmers don’t look at Swiss farmers like farmers, they’re more gardeners,” said Wilda. “In Switzerland, things are very small. What is unique in Switzerland you have on a small surface, you have very different environments and very different production sizes, different climates, and this makes it extremely interesting. Because in two to three hundred kilometers diameter you find so many different types of agriculture, while in Canada it’s large. In Switzerland, it changes from one beautiful scene to the next. In the U.S. midwest for example for large distances you see always the same corn, corn, soybean, corn, corn, soybean.”

While huge differences in size between the two countries, the challenges farmers face are similar.  

“The challenges are absolutely the same. The farmers need to work in an effective and efficient way. They need to make the money. Consumers think it’s always too expensive. At the basic, the challenges are the same. The work environments are slightly different,” says Wilda.

Marketing what farmers grow is always a challenge. Again, somewhat similar in some instances where farmers in both countries sell directly in local markets, but when it comes to exports it takes even a bigger effort.

How do those Swiss farmers market?

“This depends on the area. One thing is to push the seasonality and the regionality. They try to produce local product because commodity products, they are on the global market and there’s no differentiation. But if you have local product, you can differentiate them. One of our big companies Migros sells food promoting it as produced in the region where it is consumed. The regional thing is very, very high up,” he said. “The other thing, organic farming has good growth in Switzerland. I believe also in U.S. and Canada organic farming is still growing. It’s not the mass market, it’s a niche market, but continuously growing.”

“This market is a local market. It’s a village that is over 500 years old. It’s in the farming area and there’s a lot of traditional handcrafts you can find here, not only farmers but also you find woodwork, and you find ironwork and all the basics,” Wilda said proudly. “They’re local and the local people come, support and buy. It’s also the people from the cities far away, Zurich or Basel are coming because it’s known, it’s unique and has a nice tradition.”

Chris Wilda worked on a project this last year that included insects, protein, and human food.

“That’s forward looking. With the help of insects, you can basically upcycle food waste and retrieve again the protein or build up more protein that we can use for animal feed, replacing fish meal. That’s the basic thinking behind that,” he said. “Switzerland on its own has two million tons of food waste in Switzerland only, but it’s also a global challenge, and the production of food and feed from insects is a modern forward thinking concept because there’s a lot of innovation in the future.”