Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
As I considered what countries to study abroad in, Austria stood out to me specifically because it had the highest percentage (11%) of organic farms in the European Union (EU). Although it is a tiny country, a size comparable to the state of Maine, I found this achievement impressive and wanted to learn why Austria was so successful in sustaining organic agriculture.
While studying in Vienna for the spring 2010 semester, I was able to research the theory and legislation behind Austria's organic agricultural policy. Some of the most useful pieces of research came when I visited the University of Agricultural Sciences (Universität für Bodenkultur), to interview professors of agricultural policy. In addition to interviewing academics on the subject, I was also able to speak with representatives from organizations that play various roles in Austria's organic agricultural structure. Those included:
• The head of organic farming from the Ministry of Agriculture, who was able to describe the general history of organic farming in Austria, as well as its current situation.
• Two representatives from BIO Austria Carinthia, the largest organic farmer's association in Austria, which does everything from putting on workshops to lobbying the government in the interests of organic farmers.
• A representative from AgrarMarkt Austria (AMA), a government body which manages all market regulations and subsidies within the Common Agricultural Policy, the overreaching agricultural policy of the EU.
Through these interviews, I was able to understand the general structure of Austrian organic farming legislation. In essence, the more ecologically-friendly a farm is in Austria, the more subsidies a farm receives from the government. These subsidies began in the early 1990s, at a time where there was a massive growth in the number of organic farms. It has since petered off a bit, however, only marginally. A major component of Austrian agricultural policy is the value of "multifunctionality" of organic farms.
Multifunctionality recognized that organic farms do not only produce food, but also provide social and environmental benefits to a community.
After my studies in Vienna, I was able to travel to two farms in Austria through my travel grant for two months. The first farm I worked at was an organic dairy family farm in Salzburg. There, I was able to not only learn about the hard work, technical skill and knowledge required to farm, but also how Austrian policy affects a farm on a tangible level. A farm of 25 cows is able to survive in Austria due to subsidies from both the EU and Austria. Furthermore, a cooperative processing plant allows for the milk from a small farm to be processed into organic cheese; infrastructure such as this is greatly lacking in the US.
This farm had an educational aspect to it which I had not expected to see. Farm tours and visits to school classes are an integral part of the farm's philosophy. I was able to lead classes on field trips around the farm and teach butter-making to local school children. Interestingly, the educational component is funded by the government.
The second farm I worked at was a vegetable farm in the mountains of Carinthia, which is in southern Austria, close to the Italian and Slovenian boarders. There, I was able to sell vegetables at the weekly organic market and meet other farmers as well.
Now that I am back at St Lawrence, I am using the research I did in Austria to do a comparative study of American agricultural policy. It is extremely interesting and useful to have knowledge of a successful organic farming system.