The Wüthrich Family: A legacy in International Agriculture

28.05.2024 Three alumni reflect on their experiences and the impact the BSc degree programme still has on their lives.

This year is the 30th anniversary of International Agriculture at BFH-HAFL and Bertrand, Loïc and Maël Wüthrich are a unique part of the celebrations.

The trio has created a legacy as the only family to have completed the BSc in Agriculture specialising in International Agriculture (IL). Their story is not just about farming: it’s a narrative of generational learning, the transformative power of education, and the life-changing impact of travel.

Bertrand, 52, and his wife, Anita, run the family farm in Courtételle, canton Jura, with his brother, Marc. Bertrand also works part time as a farming consultant for Fondation Rurale Interjurassienne (FRIJ) and is president of several organisations. For the past two years, Loïc, 26, has worked for Ecorobotix, which designs, develops and produces smart sprayers for the localised treatment of crops. And Maël, 24, is currently in Sri Lanka for a project on organic fertilisers and compost production with Baurs. Their sister, Juline, 22, has bucked the agriculture trend by studying hotel management.

Bertrand (centre) with his sons Loïc (left) and Maël (right). They all completed a BSc in Agriculture, specialising in International Agriculture, at HAFL.
Bertrand (centre) with his sons Loïc (left) and Maël (right) all completed a BSc in Agriculture, specialising in International Agriculture, at HAFL.

When asked what it was like to be the first family of International Agriculture graduates, the trio laughed. “When Nancy (Bourgeois, Head of International Agriculture) told us, it was nice to know, but it doesn’t really change much!” joked Loïc. “I suppose it is quite unique and reflects well on our family that we are interested and want to learn, and we’re open to new things. I think that’s what IL offers and is the only programme of its kind in Switzerland.”

Importance of the internships

Since the IL degree programme began in 1994, the six-month internship in the final year, working on a project with various BFH-HAFL partners, has played an integral part. Bertrand went to Romania in 1995, Loïc to Panama in 2021, and Maël was in Tanzania last year. They all said their internships were life changing.

“I think International Agriculture is the orientation in HAFL where you go outside your comfort zone the most,” said Maël. “You are exposed to other people, other ways of thinking, and encouraged to be openminded. There are a lot of uncertain things, and I like that. The internship gave me the first exposure to such situations.”

Loïc feels the same. “You learn new languages,” he said, “and can specialise in a topic you’ve never done anywhere else. What I studied isn’t exactly useful for what I do now professionally, but the key points for me are the soft skills I learned – English and Spanish, the ability to adapt, and problem-based learning (PBL) where you learn to understand contexts and find solutions quickly. Because of the internship, I am comfortable arriving in a new context, finding my mark and doing business.”

“For me, it was exciting to see other cultures,” said Bertrand, “and to be open to the ‘new’. To have the mindset to be open to change, and to learn different things about agriculture in many lands, in light of climate change, political change, and market change – this has stayed with me.”

The sons didn’t feel any pressure to study IL but saw how positively it affected their father’s life – Bertrand and Anita enjoyed Romania so much they lived there for another three years after the internship, when the boys were young.

“I’d say I was influenced by Dad having studied IL at HAFL and that’s why I chose it,” said Loïc. “We were just babies when we lived in Romania. We went back several times to visit, and it was the friendships there that I always viewed so positively – the bonds made because of Dad’s internship – and this is what inspired me the most to study IL.”

“This experience … no one can take it from you,” said Maël. “It’s hard to describe how the internship changed me, and something like this stays with you for the rest of your career.”

“I’m proud they studied agriculture,” Bertrand added, “but I didn’t push them with a plan to take over the farm.”

Bertrand took over running the family farm in canton Jura from his father, Pierre (left), in 2007.
Bertrand took over running the family farm in canton Jura from his father, Pierre (left), in 2007.

Farm life

The Domaine de Sur-Chaux farm has been owned by the family since 1912. Bertrand is the fourth generation, and his sons will be the fifth generation of farmers. They have one apprentice, one employee, and Bertrand’s father Pierre, 78, still looks after the animals. Bertrand took over running the farm from Pierre in 2007.

In 2008 they made the change to organic farming and developed different crops; they now have about 15, including oats, wheat, spelt, sunflowers, soya, canola, and chickpeas. They split the crops across a combined 86 ha – 56 ha on their farm and 30 ha on Marc’s farm, which is one kilometre away. Some of the produce is sold onsite, and also to a cooperative and the village bakery. They raise Black and Red Angus beef cattle and sell locally, too.

“I’ll probably work until I’m 60,” said Bertrand, “and by then I’ll know how it’s all going. I took over the farm aged 35. I’d done other things before that, which was a good thing. Sometimes it’s a problem for farmers when they only do farming – they only see this and nothing else. Sometimes you have to go away to come back and see the path.”

Global perspectives

The international path may not be for everyone, but the trio believes it opened more doors than focusing only on Swiss farming. Bertrand fondly recalled his first job interview after completing the degree. “One of the questions I was asked was ‘Can you adapt?’ The interviewer laughed and said with what I’d just done (in Romania), that question was already answered.”

“Some people aren’t ready to make that transition – they think it’s interesting but not for them,” added Maël. “It needs a very adventurous mindset or spirit. I’m interested in the world in general, but I never would have been able to work in agriculture in Tanzania if I had tried to organise this myself. That would have been tough.”

Loïc said the degree programme offers a safe environment for overseas study which also opens doors to finding work in Switzerland. “People on the work market think if I do IL I’ll limit myself only to international, but that’s not the case,” he said. “And now when I meet other people who studied IL, there’s an instant connection. HAFL is a good ‘melting pot’ of Switzerland.”

Bertrand agreed that the majority of IL graduates that he knows are active in Swiss agriculture. “My father’s generation,” he continued, “said you don’t have to study Swiss farming methods, so it was good to open new perspectives. I have never regretted it. The Swiss can be quite focused on small, Swiss problems and don’t know what’s going on around the world. In Romania, I saw the strategy of selling less at a good price. It was impossible to compete with their prices and play in the same game – everything was cheaper – so we had to focus on doing what we did well.”

“In Tanzania, I enjoyed discussing with the farmers about what is their context, and their challenges, and it was all quite similar!” said Maël. “To see agriculture as dynamic and creative and to see how farmers are managing change was very inspiring.”

About 15 different crops are grown on the farm and include oats, wheat, spelt, sunflowers, soya, canola, and chickpeas.
About 15 different crops are grown on the farm and include oats, wheat, spelt, sunflowers, soya, canola, and chickpeas.

Family friendly

Another big bonus for them all was being able to travel on their internships with their wives. “I find it good that HAFL lets your partner come with you,” said Loïc. “That was the case for all three of us. Sometimes jobs for the partners can be found in their professional sectors too, or in other sectors.”

“In my year,” Maël said, “there were four couples and one with a baby. It makes it more special.”

The breadth of knowledge from staff was also pointed out as a positive. “What I appreciate was the relationship with the teachers,” said Bertrand. “It was more of an exchange, not really a hierarchy. We had Urs Scheidegger teach us about coffee in South America – all experience-based. Sometimes you see students come out of other schools and theoretically they know everything, but practically they know nothing.”

“I also value the teaching being experience-based and content specific,” said Maël. “We had the lecturers to do this. They might know about one part of the world, but not another, and they don’t sell themselves as experts for the whole world. It’s good that they say they know a lot, but not everything. We could benefit from their specific experiences and wide range of different realities.”

For the trio, studying IL has given them a global perspective, deepened their understanding of agricultural practices, and fostered a spirit of international collaboration. Will we see a third generation of Wüthrichs studying IL at HAFL? Given the family’s interest in the world and belief in education, the chances are very high!


Text and photos by Angela Wade

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Subject area: International agriculture and rural development
Category: International