“It wasn’t really an independent study,” Jeremie Favre said. “The emphasis was on life experience.”
Favre was talking about his first internship as a 15-year-old on a produce farm in the state of Oregon. It was a program through John Calvin High School in his homeland of Switzerland, where he lived a 20-minute drive from Geneva. Qualified students were allowed to work away from school and classrooms as part of the educational process. Several farm internships were offered on U.S. and Swiss farms, including several grass-based operations.
Later while studying forages and grazing in pursuit of a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Favre met his wife, Ellen Geisler. She grew up on a produce farm near Ripon, Wisconsin.
Favre has since earned his master’s degree while working on the Kernza project with Valentin Picasso Risso’s group at UW-Madison. His focus was the dual use of Kernza – a perennial small grain – for its forage and grazing potential.
“I did it more for personal interest than career goals,” he said.
He has two years experience in ag-related research and Extension in Switzerland where his focus has been on grass-based dairies.
Geisler earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies and a master’s degree in forestry. The two value their education, they said, and plan to implement what they’ve learned on their own farm.
The past two years have been challenging for the young couple, who recently had their first child, a daughter Zola.
“We’ve been actively seeking a farm in Switzerland for two years and have found nothing,” Geisler said.
They originally hoped to find a farm in the French-speaking area of Switzerland near Favre’s family. As their search expanded to the rest of Switzerland they realized it could mean being five hours away from family in the German-speaking region of the country. Geisler said they figured they may as well be an airplane flight away while being close to her family in Ripon.
The two decided to widen their search to include Wisconsin. Their goal is to buy a farm and have a diversified grazing operation focusing on sheep.
“We’re looking at central and western Wisconsin because they’re good for grazing,” Geisler said. “We also won’t have to compete with land prices based on row crops like in southern and eastern Wisconsin.”
Farmland is limited in Switzerland; half of all food consumed there is imported. Farmers are strongly subsidized for ecological purposes. Geisler said she thinks the ecological subsidies in place in Switzerland are definitely beneficial to the ecology of the land. She said there are ongoing studies to ensure the intended outcomes are actually being achieved.
“The goal of ecological subsidies in Switzerland is to reward farmers for positive externalities of practices otherwise not paid for by consumers,” Favre said.
Farming in Switzerland is filled with tradition. Passing on the farm to a family member is a priority for farmers; 90 percent of farms are sold within families.
“Land is passed on within families at a yield value,” Favre said.
The yield value is usually two to six times less than the commercial value, allowing young farmers to take over the family farm relatively easily. The sale of a farm to a family member at yield value is the selling farmer’s retirement. The yield value is also an accepted inheritance value. All children in Switzerland must receive an equal share of their parents’ assets, and the farm is one of those. Besides providing retirement income to the parents, the yield value is a way to settle family-inheritance questions in a way that’s accepted by everyone. When the yield value isn’t enough to cover retirement costs, farmers are free to sell the farm for more money, or work out an agreement with their kids in which they continue to live in the house or work on the farm for a salary.
Switzerland’s inflated wages and inflated cost of production make it difficult to compete with Europe for commodities. Farmers focus on value-added and excellent-quality products.
“It’s a broader scope of value added,” Geisler said. “It’s value-added in terms of production methods and processing.”
The demand for Swiss products and relatively wide-spread share of direct marketing makes farming an attractive profitable profession.
Favre said he’s always been a forage, pasture and grass guy.
“Managing diverse perennial swards and using animals as a tool to harvest really speaks to me,” he said.
The couple’s goal is to raise sheep at an intensive-management level. They want to implement a system involving lambing three times per year.
“It’s based on management and high forage quality,” Favre said.
The couple wants sheep to be the main foundation of their future farm but also see diversification as necessary.
“We’ll buy a farm based on grazing sheep and diversify based on what develops,” Favre said.
Favre and Geisler knew soon after meeting they wanted to raise their children on a farm. When Zola was born they intensified their focus.
“If Switzerland can’t provide, we’ll look on the other side of the pond,” he said.
Favre and Geisler have been working with a Realtor and have made several offers for Wisconsin farms, but none have so far come to fruition. According to their real estate agent, land is selling for more than pre-pandemic levels. But what’s more pronounced is people’s tendency to hang on to their land because of uncertainty.
After working on sheep farms in southern France this past December, their search now continues for a farm in Wisconsin.
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.