«The hotline is not full of Dr. Dr.’s»

Interview with Andrin Pescatore, Certifier/ Head of training bio.inspecta AG

Interview with Andrin Pescatore, Certifier/ Head of training bio.inspecta AG

bio.inspecta operates a telephone hotline in several languages. It is for registered farms. However, others also call, as well as organic advisors and feed producers.  

There is a hotline from bio.inspecta for agriculture and one for processing and trade. This is in German, Italian and French (calls go to bio.inspecta Romandie in Etagnières VD). In Frick AG, Andrin Pescatore is one of four staff members who receive enquiries from farmers. He is himself a trained farmer and agricultural technician HF. At bio.inspecta he is also responsible for the training and further education of the 90 inspectors, certifies farms and occasionally inspects special farms such as large apiaries. In conversation, you can hear his enthusiasm for agricultural practice. 

Do producers have such urgent questions that a hotline is needed?

That can happen. Perhaps the organic inspection is due the day after tomorrow and the Suisse balance sheet has not yet been drawn up. Or someone is auctioning a conventional cow and is not sure whether he has any chance of getting an exemption permit. So it's pretty burning (laughs).

Is there a kind of seasonality in the questions?

The weather is the decisive factor for the number of requests. You can look out of the window in the morning. When it rains, we are on the phone non-stop for up to eight hours. When it's sunny, everyone is busy outside – the phone rings less. In autumn, it's mainly new customers who call. Towards the end of the year, it's questions about bills, because they sort the bookkeeping. From January to March/April there are many questions about the new regulations and the preparation for the organic inspection, for which we send out our checklist in time. In spring and summer, the questions are very diverse. They range from the permissibility of silage additives to specifications for construction projects.

Who is calling?

Technical questions tend to come from men, financial or organisational questions mainly from women. Among the older generation, the farmer's wife often still does the office work and the husband is in the barn. Office work is unjustly somewhat ridiculed. I am very sure that many things would not work if the woman no longer did the office work. Often, for example, she has the animal traffic database under control.

You offer a free Organic Farm Assessment. Is your hotline also the first point of contact for farms that are considering converting to organic?

It happens. In August, the organic direct payments for the next year have to be registered with the canton. At the same time, an inspection body must be chosen. When they call here, they often have a few additional questions. This quickly tells us whether they are already well informed or whether an Organic Farm Assessment would be helpful. We visit the farm for about two hours and clarify open questions.

I thought interested farms would first contact Bio Suisse.

That can also be the case, that is individual. Of course, they also have to register there. But it is not immediately clear to everyone what is Bio Suisse and what is bio.inspecta. You often hear, «the Bio visits for a control». People speak of «the Bio». Is that now «the Bio in Basel» or «the Bio in Frick»?

Will the new rules on exclusively domestic bud feed for ruminants trigger many enquiries?

There will certainly be calls as soon as this feed becomes scarce. In the sense of: «If I can't get any more feed from Austria, what am I going to do?» There will also be accusations that the rules are no good. But we stop these discussions. We advise people to get information from local traders, to network better among farms, or to use biomondo.ch.

The more precise the guidelines are, the more targeted you can provide the information. Conversely, they are already very comprehensive.

I think that for those who do organic farming out of deep conviction, many things are clear in advance: «Of course I'll use organic straw, I'm an organic farm after all». And then there are farms that explore the possibilities and go to the limit.

That is permissible, as long as all the guidelines are adhered to. But if you look for loopholes, the guidelines have to close them in turn.

Exactly. That is the difficult part. This requires sophisticated guidelines for as many situations as possible, and that is what makes them so extensive.

What do you do with frequently asked questions so that the bio-consultation and communication take this into account?

We report this primarily to Bio Suisse, which sets the guidelines. We also draw attention to changes in our own newsletter or remind people of certain requirements. Last spring, for example, there was a tightening up of the licensing practice regarding the purchase of conventional animals, which will take effect at the beginning of 2020. At the beginning, we received a flood of applications, 10 to 15 per day, most of which could not be approved. The rejections of the applications provoked a lot of incomprehension and further enquiries. After this reminder, things settled down a bit.

Can you explain again right away what is not approvable?

Until the end of 2019, a 10 percent limit applied to conventional, uncalved animals. For every ten cows, one conventional cow could be purchased per year. Since 2020, this is no longer allowed. Now you need an exceptional permit for this. And this is only available if there is no offer on biomondo.ch and certain conditions are met. For example, it has to be a niche breed like Rätisches Grauvieh. My favourite breed, by the way (laughs).

Why is there so much interest in conventional animals?

There are too few organic animals. The organic market could not develop properly because of the 10 percent rule for conventional animals.

Aren't companies jumping into the gap in the market?

Yes, of course there are. I have even experienced this on the hotline. During the conversation I could almost hear the other person think and suddenly a business idea was born: «There is a need for rearing places for organic cattle? That would be a new branch of business for us. » Or as a result of my information that there are no organic turkey chicks available in Switzerland, the caller wanted to think about something. This resulted in the first organic turkey breeding in Switzerland in Toggenburg. Such things are a great source of joy.

I was just about to ask about the good moments on the hotline. So these are the kind? 

Yes, I only gave one piece of information and yet it set something in motion. These are moments when you can really help. Anyway, people are usually grateful. Often, they say they have a huge problem and can't move forward. When I can then point out step by step what needs to be done, I can hear the relaxation in their voice. It is a good feeling to be helpful. My heart beats for agriculture and the conversations are extremely enriching. I enjoy doing this work very much. 

What are the difficult moments? 

When there is a fate behind it. If the manager has died and the wife calls, they don't know where up and down is and what to do. In such cases, our regional manager offers to go there personally.

What do you do when an enquiry suggests hardship or grievances on the farm? 

That also exists. I then try to address the suspicion directly and recommend contacting the appropriate counselling centers. I immediately give the telephone number or write an e-mail with the relevant addresses. I want to keep the threshold for seeking help as low as possible. But the responsibility remains with the company. We can only provide information, not advice. In the lockdown, by the way, we felt the other person's need to talk.

Do you have any requests for the callers? 

It is important to me that they know: The hotline is not full of Dr. Dr.'s who have never held a pitchfork in their hands. We are all trained active or former farmers with a lot of practical experience in organic farming. And that the political can be left out. For example, the new Bio Suisse regulation that the tails of lambs may only be docked with a medical certificate caused a lot of trouble. We also listened to criticism on the hotline. But we are a strictly independent inspection body and not responsible for politics, neither for association politics nor, for example, for the agricultural initiatives last summer.

You on the «hot line» are the right people for information on the guidelines, but not for discussions about them. 

Exactly. We are neither Bio Suisse nor Demeter. The callers, on the other hand, are. As members of these producers' associations, they can and should actively contribute their opinion there.

What are your own expectations of your hotline? 

I myself appreciate it very much when I am not connected from one information desk to another on the phone, but can deposit my request and then soon receive a solid answer. We also want to offer this service. We take questions, know the answer immediately or clarify it and answer within a day at the latest. Calling us should be easy, efficient and pleasant. 

Interview: Stephanie Fuchs, Bioaktuell