The federal republic of Austria consists of nine states (Bundesländer) that are further divided into districts. The districts are further divided into municipalities. Statutory cities have the competencies granted to both districts and municipalities. The states have some legislative authority.
The main agricultural policy instruments are the Agricultural Chambers (Landwirtschaftskammern), as well as funds, clubs and societies, cooperatives, unions and political parties.
As in other EU countries, main challenges in the Austrian context include farmers’ high dependence on subsidies, and the favouring of larger farms in many policies. Furthermore, the consumption of arable land (mainly by re-designation into building land) has increased despite government resolutions to reduce it; and land acquisition law is not in line with EU legislation in some aspects.
A main strength is the relatively good support for organic farming, which has led to one of the highest shares of organic farming in the EU.
Spatial planning and loss of arable land
The federal states are in charge of regional planning; therefore each state has its own regional planning law. Additionally, the municipalities within the federal states are in charge of local planning.
There is a cascade of planning instruments, regulations and laws involved when it comes to the question of how land is used or turned from/to agricultural use. Just to mention a few:
area dedication plans (Flächenwidmungspläne),
area usage plans (Flächennutzungspläne),
regional development plans (Raumordnungspläne), and
building development regulations (Bebauungsvorschriften).
In order to coordinate the measures of regional planning the Austrian Conference on Spatial Planning (ACSP; Österreichische Raumordnungskonferenz - ÖROK) was established in 1971 as an independent institution. The ACSP published the latest concept for spatial development in 2011. These concepts contain non-binding recommendations.
Land ownership of agricultural and forestry estates has been more and more affected by public (regional) planning and ensuing public demands. This has led to an erosion of proprietary right, for example usage of the land apart from agriculture is limited. On the other hand, Austria loses 0.5% of agricultural land per annum mostly due to re-designation of agricultural land into building land (1). While the Austrian government declared in their 2002 strategy for sustainability that they would reduce the daily consumption of arable land until 2010 by 90%; the daily consumption of arable land has increased by 22% (1).
Land acquisition law
The land market in Austria is regulated by a land transfer law (Grundverkehrsgesetz). It is a federal law, and therefore 9 versions exist. For example, through the land acquisition law (Bodenbeschaffungsgesetz) the state allows municipalities with proven need for housing to buy or even to expropriate land in order to cover the demand (Gesamte Rechtsvorschrift für Bodenbeschaffungsgesetz, Fassung vom 11.12.2010 2010). There are aspects of the land acquisition law that have conflicted with EU legislation. Usually a commission concerned with the acquisition of land (Grundverkehrskommission) decides whether a legal transaction of land is allowed.
CAP (Common Agricultural Policy)
Austria has been a member state of the European Union since 1995, which entailed the implementation of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (2).
Despite public expenses for the agricultural sector rising by 142 % between 1989 and 2006, the number of farms and forest businesses decreased by almost a third between 1990 and 2003; from 281.000 farms to 191.000 in 2003 (2). This decrease took place at an increasing rate, therefore a part of it can be interpreted as a result of the EU membership. The reasons for this development have been the increase in bureaucratization and production pressure on the formerly less intensified and specialized agricultural sector.
The decrease in earnings from agricultural produce has been compensated by an increase in direct payments in the form of subsidies (2). The Green Report 2015 (Grüner Bericht 2015) states the income of Austrian agricultural businesses consisted on average of 72.8 % public funding (3). Therefore, Austrian agriculture is far from being as competitive as is often claimed. Instead, it is highly dependent on subsidies (3).
The agricultural law (Landwirtschaftsgesetz) contains the aims of agrarian structure policy. One of its main aims is increase in productivity. Its instruments are, among others: subsidies, premiums and other forms of financial aid, provision of arable land by state companies and land consolidation. Furthermore, some forms of producer cooperation are encouraged (e.g. in the form of machinery rings).
Regulations and policies are rather in favour of larger farms in order to promote agricultural productivity and competitive ability. In 2012 for example, the Austrian Federal Court of Auditors criticised the agrarian-environmental programme (Agrarumweltprogramm) for partly favouring large-scale farms (4). The afore-mentioned agrarian-environmental programme provides subsidies to farmers for voluntary environmental services. The ministry of agriculture issues the Agrarian-environmental programme since 1995 with new versions being issued every 5 years, the latest version is from 2015 (4).
In order to farm land and receive subsidies, a proof of competence is required; this usually means having graduated from an agricultural school, or obtained a university degree.
Other important aspects concerning land inheritance and customs of succession:
Up to the 19th century it was quite common to exchange, sell or buy agricultural land pieces; later it became a matter of honour if a farm stayed in the family for generations. With the Nazi-Regime the term ‘Erbhof’ (entailed estate) was introduced and the relation between a family and the family farm gained even more importance, which may still affect the situation up to now.
In the western parts of Austria (Vorarlberg, Tyrol) as well as the wine growing regions in the eastern parts, physical division (or gavelkind) is practiced: the inheritance is divided equally (or unequally) among all heirs. In the rest of Austria, impartibility of the inheritance is common and the entire farm is transferred to a single heir, who is technically required to pay out the other heirs accordingly; however, they are usually not compensated fully.
Although the higher education in agriculture and forestry falls to the republic’s domain, the bigger part of the agricultural and forestry school system is regulated by the federal states. Out-of-school education is supported by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chamber of Agriculture with direct and indirect measures. Two institutions that offer out-of-school training for future farmers are the institute for continuing education in rural areas (Das ländliche Fortbildungsinstitut, LFI) and the Rural Youth Association (Landjugend).
Nationally to internationally certified further training is provided by the Austrian agency for health and food security, PLC (Österreichische Agentur für Gesundheit und Ernährungssicherheit GmbH; AGES). A number of other institutions offer training as well, for example the federal institutions of higher education and research (Die höheren Bundeslehr- und Versuchsanstalten) and the federal research and education centre for forestry, natural hazards and landscape (Das Bundesforschungs- und Ausbildungszentrum für Wald, Naturgefahren und Landschaft, BFW).
Since most of these trainings are aimed at people coming from farming backgrounds, it is often difficult for new entrants to find adequate practical training opportunities beyond the less institutionalised forms, such as WWOOF.
Concerning subsidies, beginning farmers can apply for agricultural subsidies on the one hand and other subsidies, such as funds for house construction, alternative energy projects, on the other hand. In many cases, the latter is more relevant because the criteria for agricultural subsidies are not fulfilled or access to information on these subsidies is difficult. The available funding frameworks for beginning farmers are:
Start-up subsidy (Existenzgründungsbeihilfe)
Agricultural investment subsidy
Agricultural investment loan
These funding frameworks, due to their complexity, are relatively difficult to access for newcomers without support. Furthermore, they are not adapted to the specific needs of new entrants, e.g. concerning low age limits, high investment thresholds, and the specific needs of smaller scale farms.
The percentage of organic farms and the organic market share in Austria, has been one of the highest in Europe since the year 2000 (5). Due to the government’s promotion of organic agriculture, it is seen as a “success story” (6).
The growth of organic farming in Austria has, however, stagnated since the majority of ‘easily convertible’ farms have switched to organic; among smaller and more alternative farmers, it is increasingly common to use organic principles without official certification. This is mostly due to the relative lack of economic benefits from certification compared to the high burden of bureaucracy necessary.
(1) Seiß (2016)
(2) Hoppichler, Josef (2007): Was brachte der EU-Beitritt der österreichischen Landwirtschaft? Wien: Bundesanst. für Bergbauernfragen (Facts and features/Bundesanstalt für Bergbauernfragen, 39).
(3) Müller, Wolfgang (2016): Agrarpolitische Eskapaden. Inkompetenz ist nicht strafbar. 1. Auflage. Langenzersdorf: Verlag Buschfeuer.
(4) Spanring, Leopold (2013): Österreich: Rechnungshof kritisiert Agrarumweltprogramm massiv. dlz agrarmagazin.
(5) Willer, H., and J. Lernoud eds. 2014. The world of organic agriculture. Statistics and emerging trends 2014. FIBL-IFOAM Report. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Fibl) Frick and International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
(6) Eder, Michael (2006): Der biologische Landbau in Österreich: Eine Erfolgsgeschichte. In: Ika Darnhofer, Hans Karl Wytrzens und Christoph Walla (Hg.): Alternative Strategien für die Landwirtschaft. Festschrift für Walter Schneeberger. Wien: Facultas, S. 89-100.