As leaders of atypical SMEs, farmers are currently forced to adapt their business models to meet commercial demands and ecological imperatives. Hansruedi Häfliger, Director of the Liebegg Agricultural Center in the canton of Aargau, details the challenges and opportunities facing the agriculture of the future.
Whether they are breeders, cultivators, or winemakers, stakeholders in the agricultural sector must explore new solutions to ensure their sustainability within an environmentally conscious context. Some of these solutions are being developed at the Liebegg Agricultural Center, the competence hub for agriculture, family economics, and food in the canton of Aargau. The institution is committed to both initial and continuous education – last year, it welcomed 430 learners at all levels – and is also involved in various innovative projects. Its director, Hansruedi Häfliger, outlines the current and future challenges for those in the sector.
What are the main challenges faced by Swiss farmers?
Hansruedi Häfliger: Among the main challenges are administrative burdens, inequitable distribution of margins, and ideological or prosperity-focused debates. These discussions – concerning food, the environment, or rural areas – often fail to consider the systemic importance of agriculture. Additionally, there are the impacts of climate change, lagging legislation in areas such as spatial planning and digitization – including artificial intelligence – and technical production restrictions (e.g., lack of active substances and alternatives).
What can be done to address these challenges?
Häfliger: It is essential to strike a delicate balance amidst existing conflicting objectives and foster a more comprehensive and equitable entrepreneurial environment. Otherwise, the Swiss agri-food sector risks losing its releance, and the country's self-sufficiency rate will continue to decline. In the long term, sustainability is the only solution, defined by three indicators: economy, ecology, and social responsiblitiy. Many farms perceive current discussions as being solely focused on ecology, which does not constitute genuine sustainability.
Could you highlight some sustainability projects at the Liebegg Agricultural Center?
Häfliger: In the ecological domain, we have partners in the project "Plant Protection Optimization with Precision Farming" (PFLOPF) with the cantons of Thurgau and Zurich, and the Confederation. The aim is to optimize the use of plant protection products through precision farming methods. In the economic field, we collaborate with the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) on the benefits of agro-photovoltaics, combining renewable electricity production and agricultural production on open land. Socially-oriented projects primarily focus on facilitating farmers' work and providing management assistance. Examples include the development of an irrigation app or the experimentation of ear tags like SmartCow.
What are the most useful technologies for farmers today and in the future?
Häfliger: Today, technologies like weeding robots and imaging-assisted drones, satellite-guided tractors, and robotic milking of cows are valuable in precision agriculture. In the future, systems will be more interconnected, integrating services and documenting work. Current farm management decisions will increasingly be made by computer systems based on collected data and artificial intelligence. Overall, agriculture is expected to progress positively in all three sustainability areas, as long as technologies are used in the interest of farmers' families and not for control purposes.
Can you explain the concept of "farm designing" and its benefits for farmers?
Häfliger: Farm designing is a process that aims to maximize farm productivity and efficiency. It involves planning and designing the physical layout and operations of the farm, such as field positioning, buildings, fences, water sources, pathways, and other crucial aspects. It also considers how resources like water, soil, and energy can be used most effectively. By carefully planning and designing their farms, farmers can benefit from improved productivity, efficient resource utilization, reduced waste and costs, enhanced animal welfare, and minimized environmental impact.
Is the future of agriculture purely technological?
Häfliger: No, it's a blend of technical innovations and traditional knowledge. However, fewer people will perform manual labor on farms in the future. Technological assistance in agriculture will increase, and artificial intelligence will play a more significant role. Farming techniques will adapt to changing conditions like weather, and new forms like agro-photovoltaics will gain importance. Efficient resource utilization and agricultural cycles will also become more significant.