Thursday, April 7, 2011

Paying farmers for landscaping

Switzerland has had for centuries a rather unique system of communal land tenure for the alpine areas. Indeed, cattle owners send their livestock up from the villages for the Summer season, and these grazing areas are commonly owned and rights to them are inherited. The returns of agriculture in the mountainous areas are, however, far from competitive in this era of globalization, and Switzerland has resorted to compensating farmers for keeping the cows up there. The reason is that cows and some other farming bring landscaping benefits, for example keeping the grass short improves snow management for avalanche prevention and skiing, or preserves biodiversity and prevents invasive plants to take foothold. These direct payments are very close to making farmers civil servants. Note that payments depend on the size of the farm, its location, the treatment of animals and the general ecological friendliness of the business.

A pair of recent papers analyze the new situation for farmers in the Swiss Alps. Chiara Calabrese and Gabriele Mack used an agent-based model to study how incomes of a large number of heterogeneous livestock farmer families would evolve until 2020. Different scenarios are explored (a not described status quo, more subsidy for summered livestock and lump sum subsidy to all alpine farmers proportional to farmed area). Results are not unexpected (no change, more summered livestock and income, less of both). Prices are assumed to grow at a steady rate unknown to reader. Give the recent wide fluctuations for food, that needs to be made more explicit and additional scenarios are needed. Also, this study basically assumes that the government does not face a budget constraint and will always be willing whatever it takes to maintain a policy. At least the costs of the program should be reported.

The other study by Nadja El Benni, Stefan Mann and Bernard Lehmann looks at how these direct payments to farmers influence the distribution of incomes. Due to the terrain, farms are small almost everywhere in the country, and Gini coefficients for farmer income have been rather low compared to other countries. The new policy increased the Gini coefficients even though the payments were implemented in part to redistribute income and they constitute now 79% of a farmers income. The reason is that the disparities in market income have increased tremendously and direct payments are tied to farm size after all.

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