Shrinking – an effect of globalization:
The province of Styria – a rural region of Austria – is heavily affected by it. A study predicts that by 2040 the province of Styria will lose 20 percent of population. Some predict that if the movement continues, the area around St.Lambrecht – one of the most shrinking areas in the region – will be left behind empty in 50 years and will return to nature, so to speak.
Small-scale – is shrinking a threat or an opportunity?
Population in and around St.Lambrecht is shrinking and aging. Those who leave are young residents who cannot find employment in the region. While large-scale industries based in the area have considerably downscaled or collapsed, small-scale industries and private companies are slow to take ground. Small-scale family farmers represent a stable economy. Bio-farmers see their practice as an opportunity to re-evaluate the identity of the region.
Landscape supports small-scale farms:
Landscape around St.Lambrecht consists of narrow valleys and small hills, disconnected by creeks that flow from the mountains. Landscape allows for small settlements in the valleys and small-scale mountain farms scattered on the slopes. Most of them practice traditional farming and part of them are certified EU ecological farmers.
Small-scale farms – traditional into bio-farming:
Small-scale farmers practice diverse agriculture that allows for low profits – they cannot compete with large-scale farms. Those who have secured the EU bio-farm certificate are eligible for EU ecological farming subsidies.
The transition from traditional farming to bio-farming is a natural process as farmers have not changed farming practices of previous generation. They continue with the know-how of their predecessors, whose practice has been proved resilient in the landscape they inhabit. In short, the change from traditional to bio-farming lies mainly in the name – in the EU certificate labels mounted on facades of farms.
Diversity of practices and products:
Farms yield diverse products and practices. Farms are oriented in diverse practices – a combination of several activities. For instance, farmer Albert Susmann has a small herd of cows that he breeds for specific market niche – bio-milk, a small wood workshop business and rents rooms to agro-tourists. The family grows vegetables for their own needs and gets meat from other farmers, a form of exchange economy. In this landscape, it is not possible to survive and prosper by cultivating a monoculture. Hands-on practice prospers in combination with knowledge-based economy.
Network of bio-farmers – a tool for outside-the-box thinking:
Bio-farmers are connected into a network – an added value to their practice. Network empowers them and makes collaboration between them easy – for instance, a few farmers share a tractor, or contribute wood to the heating station that serves their community. Network allows for outside-the-box thinking as well – for instance, an initiative A Faire Milch organizes farmers to sell milk outside the free-trade market, so that they can secure higher prices for their product. In this way they started the process of re-evaluating their contribution to larger society.
Globalization shrinks in favor of sustainable region:
Currently, the region of Styria spends 2 billions of euros per year for imported energy. The region expects 30 percent rise in energy expenses in 10 to 20 years. That in mind, orientation into regional-based economy makes sense. Here lies a chance for the rural area – small-scale bio-farming in combination with harvesting natural resources such as wood, sun and wind (green energies). Focus on locally-based economy and self-reliance makes sense as it makes the region more sustainable.
Sustainability into self-sustainability:
There is another reason to focus on sustainability of the region. As the social state in EU downscales, the region expects less support from the government. Residents we spoke to do not expect large-scale development (highways, industry, mass tourism) supported by the state in the future. The interesting thing is that they do not desire it as well. They see their future in building self-reliance, and in small steps that build on culture of living already existing in the region.
Vision of mainstream politics:
To reverse the process of shrinking population and to counter the threat of emptying of the countryside, mainstream politicians envision more large-scale development, such as highways and big companies. This is a neolibral recipe for the region that had proved to be resistant to large-scale development.
E.U. policies, short history and vision:
In 1950s EU policies lowered the prices of food to join free trade world economy. Everyone could buy inexpensive food but big profits went to food industry, not farmers. Although 40 percent of EU budget was allocated to farmers, mountain farms did not benefit as they were not able to make large-scale food production.
Since 2005, the subsidies to farmers go to the environment they live in, not products. Farmers find a niche for their products on the market.
In 2014, new E.U. policy will be oriented to support farmers who will manage the environment they live with – they will get support as stewards of the land. In the mind of small-scale mountain farmers, such policy will enable them to survive.
Vision of bio-farmers:
Bio-farmers consider themselves to be stewards of the land they live on – they care about quality of food products, soil, forest and water. An E.U. policy that would support their culture of living would simply enable them to survive. They welcome a policy oriented into culture of living, which is different from product-oriented consumerist culture. It points to the fact that larger society considers de-growth seriously versus unquestioned development. At first sight paradoxically – at the same time that they celebrate their values in larger society, they also want to protect themselves from larger society. Mountain farmers see protection of their agriculture and their culture of living as a necessity. They want their farms outside of the global free market. Relative isolation – which they live geographically anyway – is here embedded in protection of their knowledge. Their way of doing things demands a new social contract.
Urban culture VS group identity of rural culture:
In the 80s many of St.Lambrecht’s residents worked in the dynamite factory and at the Leitner wood factory, which were both large-scale industries. The urban culture and liberal politics that came with it created and opposition to the rural traditional culture, creating a clash of cultures. Since then, the dynamite factory shrank dramatically and restructured and the Leitner factory closed down. Residents that depended on such jobs either moved out of the region or secured jobs close or far away, forcing them to commute to work on daily or weekly basis. Those who stay represent stable and conservative population with semi-traditional cultural values. In a way, an identity of self-centered urban individual is missing in St.Lambrecht. The group identity exemplified in numerous associations (Vereine) prospers. New arrivals who settle here have hard time to integrate in relatively closed associations.
Public and community space:
While residents have rich community life – they socialize in associations, the public space in St.Lambrecht does not perform. Marktplatz, the main street is mainly empty. In addition, large number of houses along Marktplatz are empty as well. Just a few small shops are located here. In a way, Marktplatz in St.Lambrecht poses a mirror to other historical city centers in Europe, which are busy during the day because of the shops that carry international brands but are empty after hours. St.Lambrecht’s empty Markplatz shows an example of a town existing beyond consumerist culture. It poses an unpleasant mirror image to other historical city centers, which have been renovated but the indigenous population was pushed out.
New culture of living:
Bio-farmers created a new vision of the future for the region based on environmental and sustainable principles. They propose a new culture of living which is not based on divide between the rural and urban culture, and divide between public and private space.