In the second half of the 19th century, scientific and technological discoveries began to exert a stronger influence on agricultural production and processing, especially in fertiliser application, feeding and mechanisation, as well as in the increasing processing of milk into cheese and condensed milk. Fertiliser and feed analyses, seed and milk inspections and research into cheese fermentation became essential. The switch from cereal to dairy production ran in parallel with the upswing in cheese production. Arable land was more than halved, whilst cheese exports from 1871/80 to 1913 doubled to 36 million kg; at the time, one-quarter of milk production went to the export market. Good cheese quality became decisive for the price of milk and for rural income.
The first experimental and inspection stations were created at the recently established cantonal agricultural schools, almost all of which were equipped with farm estates: Kreuzlingen (Thurgau canton, est.1839-69), Strickhof (Zurich, 1853), Rütti (Bern, 1860), Muri (Aargau, 1861-73), Lausanne (1870) and Sursee (1885), as well as at the ETH Zurich’s Agriculture Department, opened in 1871. Worthy of mention among the numerous private initiatives were the Swiss Alpine Farming Association’s Dairy Experimental Station in Thun, headed by R. Schatzmann (est.1872), F.G. Stebler’s Seed Inspection Station in Bern (1876) as well as its counterpart in Lausanne, and the commercial-manure analyses and inspections organised by the Swiss Agricultural Association (1864).
The priority research areas and tasks of the Federal Experimental Stations were then outlined in the Federal Council message of 12 March 1896 on the basis of an expert opinion. Major shortcomings were pinpointed above all in dairy farming (causes of faulty cheese fermentation, influence of milk quality, feed, etc.), and the creation of a Federal Experimental Dairy Station was deemed to be of paramount importance.
The question of location gave rise to much debate. Chief among the contenders were Zurich (link with the ETH), Bern and Lausanne, given that experimental stations already existed there. The canton of Bern acquired a suitable 13.4-ha farm in Liebefeld/Köniz (5 km outside of Bern) and in 1897 gifted it to the Swiss Confederation for the purpose of establishing the planned experimental station. This decided the question of location.
The federal government mandated the construction of a new-build experimental station with a vegetation hall and experimental cheese factory, which was occupied in 1901. Liebefeld thus became the site for the following three institutes:
1. The Research Institute for Agricultural Chemistry: Emerged from the Chemical Research Institute of the Agricultural School, Rütti (canton of Bern, founded 1865); at Bern University from 1891 and taken over by the federal government in 1897.
2. The Swiss Dairy Research Institute: Emerged from the dairy bacteriological laboratory of the Dairy School, Rütti (founded 1889) and taken over from the canton of Bern by the Swiss Confederation in 1899.
3. Farm Estate and Central Administration
In the Federal Council resolution of 30 October 1900, a so-called ‘central administration’ was also set up in Liebefeld with the remit of overseeing the accounting departments of the otherwise independent institutes in Zurich, Bern and Lausanne, as well as carrying out and coordinating experiments on the farm estate; it was also responsible for authorisations for the sale of agricultural auxiliary substances.
Expanding in line with economic development and technical progress in agriculture, the remits of the research stations also increasingly included official inspection, advisory and enforcement tasks in the spheres of agricultural auxiliary substances (seeds, fertilisers, feedstuffs, etc.), milk hygiene, cheese factories, food quality and safety, etc. The research stations were thus also always closely linked with the FOAG (previously the Department of Agriculture), and enjoyed a high status there. In fact, two directors, Josef Käppeli (1913-42) and Jakob Landis (1946-57), even started off in the Research Stations.
On 1 January 2014, all of the research stations were merged under the name Agroscope. Agroscope became the Swiss federal centre of excellence for research in the agriculture and food sector, organised into four institutes under the direction of the Head of Agroscope (CEO). Agroscope Council – a body tasked with defining strategic orientation – was also set up.
The reform continued in 2016 with the simplification of Agroscope’s structure. On 1 January 2017, the four institutes and 19 research divisions were abolished. Agroscope’s research services and enforcement tasks are now the responsibility of 10 newly created units – three competence divisions for research technology and knowledge exchange, and seven strategic research divisions. This brings operational management and staff closer together, with the aim of fulfilling the research organisation’s key tasks for the agriculture and food sector with greater efficiency and flexibility, and defining a clear service portfolio.
As part of the 2016 reform, Liebefeld became the main ‘Agroscope Centre’ site and the headquarters of Agroscope. Two units are based in Liebefeld : Method Development and Analytics, and Food Microbial Systems.