Marion Aigner, 29, is known to grow the sweetest carrots in town. Every Saturday morning, her stall at the Kutshkermarkt - an open air market flanked by numerous food stores and villas in Vienna's 18th district - is packed with customers. Many people come here in search of organically grown fruits and vegetables displayed in the square by farmers like Aigner. Some even stay on to assist.
Since the 1990s, organic farming has seen a big boom in Austria. The concept behind organic farming - also known as bio-farming - is rather simple. This way of farming relies on ecosystem management rather than the use of synthetic inputs, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Advocates of bio-farming say that healthy soil, maintained without the use of human-made fertilizers and pesticides, yields better quality food than chemical-based agriculture.
Leslie de Melo, a sculptor, enthusiastically agrees with this view. "The taste and flavor of the produce from Aigner's farm reminds me of the nourishing food I had as a child," he says. Now he is happy to take a break from the work he does during the week to substitute as a salesperson at the Saturday morning stall.
"The stall is easy to find. When I went to the market for the first time and asked for Aigner, I was told to look for the counter that had the most crowd," says Elisabeth Penzias, a senior journalist at Austrian Radio. Penzias likes the thought of buying eatables from hands that also grow the food. The lack of contact with human beings in modern-day supermarkets, piled up with already priced and ready to eat food, is most unappetizing, she says.
Aigner is a trailblazer in more ways than one. She is one of the youngest female farmers in Austria to convert her family's conventional agriculture fields into an organic farm. That particular achievement, though, came after considerable struggle.
Although Austria is one of the European Union countries most accepting of organic farming, many farmers - like Aigner's father - continue to resist it. It took Aigner several years to convince him. "My father has never been good at listening to others or replying to questions. This is the way I have been farming and that is the only way, is his attitude," Aigner said.
She remembers of her childhood in the dark, dingy home their family lived in. "My bed was in a tiny room near the kitchen. It was noisy and dismal in there. I liked living in such close proximity to Nature but not the way my parents did." At 17, when she finished school with a special course in secretarial work, she realized that she was not happy about spending a good part of her day confined indoors in an office.
Aigner decided to remain a farmer; but not like her father. She had read the labels on pesticide and fertilizer bottles that her father bought, which caution against the harmful content of these products. Aigner did not like the fact that her family used the same containers to mix pesticides in the field and then later for baking food.
Aigner's worries coincided with the organic farming boom in Austria. The government was now encouraging conversion of arable land to organic farming with the introduction of subsidies in 1991. The volume of subsidies for organic farming had increased from Euro 145,000 (US$1=0.84 Euros) in 1989 to Euro 15.5 million in 1994 and Euro 86 million in 2003. Young and innovative farmers took over their parents' farms, with a view to making a change from both the ecological and the economic point of view. Producers of cereals and vegetables converted more than 700 farms and 500,000 hectares of land to organic farming between 2001 and 2003.
In Austria, interest in organic farming began as early as 1927, with a set of farmers heralding organic farming as a lifestyle reform option, with products marketed to consumers directly on the farm or through farmers' markets and special organic food shops.
Obviously, Aigner found herself in the right place at the right time. Once she had made up her mind to explore alternate methods of agriculture, she talked with farmers who were already farming naturally. She tried telling her parents that organic food contains a much lower pesticide residue - only 13 per cent (from approved pesticides, and in some produce there is a total absence of chemicals) as compared to 71 per cent in conventional produce. Her family, though, did not take these concerns seriously. She was only 17, and surely she is aware that the patriarch knows best, they thought.
Aigner then enrolled in a special course at the local university that allowed her to practice organic farming. Armed with an official certificate as an organic farmer, Aigner rented one hectare of land in her father's 16-hectare farm to grow vegetables and some fruits. While he continued to spray his crop with pesticides, she refused to do so. Her father was so annoyed that Aigner moved to a flat of her own in a neighboring town, from where she would travel to her farm everyday. This is sacrilege; a peasant must live on the land she tills, her father told her. Aigner wanted to live in the village too, but without having to inhale the poison from pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
When Aigner was 19, talk drifted to inheritance of the land. Her father said he would write the land in her name but not for organic farming. She bought herself a ticket to Australia for a vacation, and told her father that he had three months to make up his mind. If he wanted her to inherit the farm, she would not till it in the conventional way, she said, waving him goodbye.
Aigner returned, and finally inherited the 16-hectare land. She has built a house of her own here, with white walls, glass doors and a modern toilet. Her octogenarian father, meanwhile, continues to live next door; but now he helps her in the fields.
This personal battle won, Aigner has moved on to working with the community at large. She is one of the founders of the Austrian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, which plays an active role in networking with farmers in the organic sector. The institute works on animal health, special crops and international cooperation. Part of its knowledge transfer activity is to host farmers from around the world at Aigner's farm, where Aigner has a shop and also organizes cooking classes and seminars.
She takes orders from cafes and bakeries for cakes and pastries that she prepares herself with her own produce. She visits schools regularly and invites students to participate in trips to the farm, where they are often blindfolded and asked to recognize organically grown fruits, vegetables and herbs by touching the crops and smelling the fields. In big ways and small, Aigner is doing her bit for a way of life she deeply believes in.