To keep women on the land, things will have to change.
One of the most successful programs in the history of Austrian television is a quirky dating show called Bauer sucht Frau (Farmer Seeks Wife), created in 2005 by Austria’s private television channel ATV. An immediate hit, it continues to break records, with some 250,000 regular viewers and ratings topping 10% in 2016, leading all Austrian prime-time competition.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: While agriculture is only 3% of GDP, Austrian farmers produce a full 80% of the country’s food supply. It’s a healthy sector overall, increasingly efficient, supported by EU and federal subsidies.
But farming can be lonely work; hours are long and the challenges of nature unyielding. So it’s hard to meet people. Particularly women.
In rural communities in Austria, men vastly outnumber women in the critical 15 to 35-year-old age bracket, 20% or more in some places, and as much as 40% in others. Many young men will never find a girlfriend, and older men are forced to accept that they will never marry.
Women are leaving the Austrian countryside. Not just women, of course; rural populations in general have been in decline since the 1970s. But over the last 20 years, the pace among women has been far faster, according to a report in the Austrian monthly Datum, as country and small-town life seems to have little to offer them.
Rural jobs tend to be in the overwhelmingly male sectors: farming, engineering, machinery or construction, where young women don’t feel welcome. As the towns and villages decline, so do the service businesses – the shops, restaurants, seamstresses and hairdressers where many would feel more at home. Of course there are jobs for teachers, doctors, dentists, vets and midwives, professions in which women have a strong presence. But for these, they need to train in the cities and, once there, they are reluctant to return. “Anyway, once you’ve left,” said one woman, “you don’t belong anymore.”
The men have few answers: “They’re just getting up and going,” said one over a beer in a tavern. “Yeah. We can’t tie them down,” said another.
Not all of this is inevitable. Technology has changed things, yes. But an important foundation was pulled out from under rural life in the 1990s, says Gerlinde Weber, a regional planner at the Donau Universität Krems, when the Federal Budget Adjustment Program (Länderfinanzausgleich) shifted important administrative functions from rural communities back to Vienna – jobs that had helped support a healthy and diversified rural life. And for which women – now making up the majority of university graduates – would be well qualified.
“When the women go, the land dies” says Weber. “The women are the social glue of a village, the partners and the mothers. Without them, the next generation is lost.”