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By buying local farm products, you help sustain rural scenery

January 17, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

As you can imagine, I do a bit of reading on agriculture. But I do not limit my reading only to domestic sources. It is, however, necessary for the information to be in English.

I was recently reading about international agriculture, in particular that of the Swiss.

I had the distinct pleasure to visit Switzerland nearly 10 years ago and I can honestly say if pictures are worth 1,000 words, being there makes one speechless. The secret to the quaint beauty of Switzerland is no secret. The country recognizes, as its Web site states, that "Agriculture creates culture."

First, you need to understand that agriculture there is very different from farming in America and, to a certain extent, Washington County. Swiss farms are essentially very small and, in most cases, would find it difficult to sustain their size if they were left to the mercy of the free market.

However, the Swiss people decided long ago, in addition to providing the domestic food supply, agriculture is a cultural asset that has helped define the country's character. The obvious point is that if the farmers and their flocks and herds were not grazing the Alps, they would just be high mountains.

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Quaint Swiss villages and distinctive farmsteads dot the countryside and the mountainsides. This gives the country the Swiss image that is enjoyed by tourists from around the world.

That brings to light the fact that tourism is a larger business than the agriculture it depends on to provide the scenery.

The Swiss government, in order to address the rural culture and tourism business reality, has placed farmers and agriculture into its constitution to be nurtured and protected.

Such measures are not likely here, but maybe appreciation and protection on a limited scale will come before it is too late.

The Swiss government obviously takes some of its tourism tax revenue and redistributes it to farmers, since they are the caretakers of the Alps.

They make no excuses for what they are doing to support agriculture and rural culture. They feel they have the right to support their agriculture industry for other than production purposes. This policy has become known as multifunctionality.

We here on this side of the Atlantic might need to take another look at how we treat agriculture and the land. Development is the last crop a parcel of land will ever produce. While I am not against development, I am a strong supporter of responsible development.

The agriculture and rural scenery around you here is what draws many to this area. We need to protect it or we will wake one day to the fact we have killed one of our greatest assets.

One way to aid in protecting farmland would be to help farmers remain profitable. Direct payment, of course, is one way, but another way would be to help create local outlets for locally produced food.

That would be one of the functions of Washington County's proposed agriculture development specialist. Most farmers are good at producing food but do not have the time or capital to create markets.

The closer we can get the consumer to the farm, the greater percentage of the food dollar is returned to the farm.

So when you can buy local, the scenic view you save might be your own.

And remember another quote from the Swiss: "To be a farmer is not just a profession, but a vocation and an important, integral part of Swiss culture."

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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