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Thomas Stemberger

Director of Forestry Department of the

Board of Chambers of Agriculture and Forestry


In May 1908 the Presidents of all agricultural development councils and agricultural societies, headed by the president of the Imperial and Royal Agricultural Society of Vienna, assembled in Vienna to convey the best wishes of the people working in agriculture and forestry to Emperor Francis Joseph on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of his succession to the throne. After the ceremony, the representatives of the countries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy gathered at the seat of the Vienna Agricultural Society and decided to join permanently - according to the Emperor's motto "viribus unitis" - to work towards the solution of common problems.

1.1 The First Presidential Conference

As provided for by the articles of the association, the first meeting of the "Presidential Conference of Agricultural Development Councils and Agricultural Societies" was convened in the same year, and guidelines for the joint work of the bodies represented were elaborated. Thus, it was in 1908 that the term Presidential Conference was first used in the context of the organized cooperation of agricultural organizations for the representation of farmers' interests vis-à-vis the state.

1.2 Agricultural Societies

First attempts to organize the people working in agriculture and forestry were made in the second half of the eighteenth century. Efforts were under way to increase agricultural yields. At that time, interest in agriculture increased among all classes of the population.

Empress Maria Theresa tried to improve the condition of the farming population. Her son, Emperor Joseph II, abolished the system of villeinage in 1781 and gave the peasants personal liberty. Towards the end of the eighteenth century research and teaching in agriculture created the theoretical basis for more efficient agricultural production. Out of the growing interest in improved land use grew the desire for a mutual exchange of experience and opinions. Associations were set up to facilitate the flow of information among their members. Following the models of France, England and Germany, Agrarian Societies were founded in almost all countries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Before long, however, these were replaced by Agricultural Societies operating on a larger scale. In 1808 an agricultural society was established in Vienna under the patronage of Archduke Johann. Agricultural societies were also set up in the other provinces of present-day Austria: in Styria in 1819, in the Tyrol and Vorarlberg in 1838, in Upper Austria in 1845, and in Salzburg in 1848. These societies - some of which were made up of regional and local associations - worked for the development of agriculture and even took first steps towards a representation of peasants' interests.

1.3 Agricultural Development Councils

Following the land reform and the liberation of the peasants in 1848, attempts were made to set up agrarian chambers, or chambers of agriculture, according to the model of the 1850 Act on the Chambers of Commerce and Trade. Agricultural Development Councils were established on the basis of provincial legislation. The first Agricultural Development Council was founded in Bohemia in 1880, to be followed by the Tyrol in 1881, Upper Austria in 1886, Lower Austria in 1905, Carinthia in 1910 and Vorarlberg in 1911. Unlike the agricultural societies, the Agricultural Development Councils were explicitly defined by law as representative bodies for the development of agriculture and the promotion of the economic interests of the agricultural community of the province concerned. Their formation was determined by law, but they were not entitled to elect their own representatives or to collect levies.

Among others, their tasks were to observe the influence of legislation and public administration on agriculture, to file petitions and to submit expert opinions to the government and the provincial authorities; moreover, they received funds from the national or provincial government to be used for the improvement of agricultural production. In the provinces of Styria and Salzburg, which did not have their own Agricultural Development Councils, these tasks were fulfilled by agricultural societies. The Agricultural Development Councils and agricultural societies successfully continued their activities even after the collapse of the Monarchy, and until the new bodies representing the interests of agriculture were established.

1.4 The first Chamber of Agriculture

The Federal Constitution of 1920 provided the basis for the establishment of autonomous bodies representing the interests of occupational groups. The authority to set up representative bodies for agriculture and forestry was conferred upon the provinces. The first Chamber of Agriculture was founded in Lower Austria under the provincial act of 22 February 1922.

The basic idea underlying the system of the Chambers of Agriculture was to create directly elected, autonomous bodies representing all agricultural and forestry holdings of a province, which had the right to collect levies and to set up subordinate units; the Chambers not only represent the interests of their members, but also deal with issues of agricultural development arising under public law.

Subsequently, Chambers of Agriculture, set up under provincial acts, and bodies representing agricultural interests, established by order of the Federal Government, were created in the other provinces to meet the requirements outlined above: in the Tyrol in 1920, in Lower Austria in 1922, in Burgenland and Vorarlberg in 1925, in Styria in 1929, in Carinthia and Upper Austria in 1932 and in Vienna in 1957.

1.5 The Federal Act of 1935

The 1935 Federal Act on the Establishment of the Agriculture and Forestry Estate did not result in any major changes in the activities of the Chambers of Agriculture and the bodies representing agricultural interests.

1.6 The Farmers' Estate of the German Reich

In 1938 the representative bodies for agriculture and forestry in Austria were dissolved and replaced by the Farmers' Estate of the German Reich with its territorial subdivision at the provincial and district level.

1.7 Re-establishment of the activities of the Chambers of Agriculture

Immediately after the re-establishment of the Republic of Austria in 1945, the Chambers of Agriculture resumed their activities. Legislation enacted under the Farmers' Estate was repealed by the provisional government and the former legal provisions regarding representative bodies in agriculture were reinstated according to the state of legislation as of 5 March 1933.

1.7.1 New acts of the Chambers of Agriculture

Since 1945 new acts concerning the Chambers of Agriculture have been passed and existing legislation has been amended several times. In 1957 a separate Chamber of Agriculture was set up for the Province of Vienna. More recently, a major change took place in Carinthia, where a new act concerning the Chamber of Agriculture, passed in 1979, restricted the tasks of the Chamber with respect to subsidization and abolished its territorial sub-units. In the Province of Lower Austria the existence of the Chamber of Agriculture and its territorial sub-units was embodied in the provincial constitution in 1982.

1.8 First centralized representative for agriculture and forestry

The first formal organization of public bodies representing agriculture and forestry was set up in 1908, when the countries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, represented at the Imperial Council, established a centralized representative body called the "Presidential Conference of Agricultural Development Councils and Agricultural Societies". However, similar efforts had been made even earlier, when a centralized body was set up in Vienna to protect the interests of agriculture and forestry, above all in the field of foreign trade.

1.8.1 Presidential Conference of Agricultural Development Councils

According to the articles of the association of the first Presidential Conference, the development and promotion of agriculture was to be left to autonomous provincial bodies, whereas a large number of questions, particularly those relating to legislation and administration as well as agricultural methods and techniques, were to be resolved by joint efforts.

At that time, customs policy was one of the most important issues dealt with by the Presidential Conference. When the large economic region of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated, the Presidential Conference of Agricultural Development Councils and Agricultural Societies also ceased to exist.

1.9 The Lower Austrian Chamber of Agriculture

Following the establishment of the Lower Austrian Chamber of Agriculture, the provincial bodies representing the interests of agriculture set up a joint federal organization on 10 January 1923. As the agricultural development councils were still in existence in most provinces, the centralized representative body was called the "Presidential Conference of the Main Representative Bodies of Agriculture in Austria".

The scope of activities of the Presidential Conference, essentially unchanged to the present, was also defined at that time. The 1935 Federal Act on the Establishment of the Agriculture and Forestry Estate provided the legal basis for the Presidential Conference and confirmed its terms of reference.

In 1938 the Presidential Conference was dissolved and replaced by the Farmers' Estate of the German Reich.

At the first joint meeting of the Chambers of Agriculture after the Second World War on 10 January 1946, the Presidential Conference of the Austrian Chambers of Agriculture was re-established as the central representative body of agriculture and forestry in its previous form, which had proved so successful from 1923 to 1935.

1.10 Federal Chamber of Agriculture

Soon after the Second World War serious efforts were made to set up a Federal Chamber of Agriculture. However, the project was abandoned for various reasons.

1.10.1 Representation of farmers' interests

Through a number of amendments of the articles of association and a decision to enlarge the Office of the Presidential Conference, the representation of farmers' interests at the federal level was strengthened considerably in 1949. At the 55th meeting of the Presidential Conference on 27 February 1953, the articles of association of the Presidential Conference of the Austrian Chambers of Agriculture were unanimously adopted. The approval required under the law of associations was given on 28 March 1953 thus making the Presidential Conference a legal entity of its own.

An attempt made by the Minister of Agriculture in 1975 to establish a federal chamber of agriculture by federal act did not progress beyond the initial stage and has not been pursued any further. Basically, the Chambers of Agriculture welcomed the idea of a Federal Chamber of Agriculture but rejected the envisaged curtailment of the provincial autonomy through a standardization of the provincial acts governing the Chambers of Agriculture by federal legislation.


The position of bodies representing special interests in the Second Republic has to be considered in light of the conditions prevailing in the country after 1945. At that time, the federal government of the newly restored Republic of Austria, subdivided into four occupational zones, tried, above all, to regain its sovereignty in relation to the occupying powers on a step-by-step basis and to build up an efficient administrative system.

Therefore, the most urgent economic and social policy issues were conferred upon existing bodies representing the interests of various occupational groups for joint deliberation. The importance of strong, centralized organizations soon became obvious. The individual representative bodies used existing chambers as a yardstick of their own efficiency and tried to catch up with other groups in regard to the strength of their central organizations. Entrepreneurs were fully aware of the fact that they had to take a united stand in order to secure an adequate voice in decision making for the diminishing number of self-employed persons in the economy.

2.1 Division of responsibilities between federal government and provinces

The increasing supervisory activity of the state in connection with the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the provinces, as well as the effects of social partnership, were reflected in a strong preponderance of tasks to be fulfilled at the federal level. To cope with these tasks, the establishment of centralized bodies of specialists in various areas proved to be most meaningful. Finally, with the legislature and the federal ministries being based in Vienna, the elected representatives and the full-time staff of centralized units were of particular practical importance.

2.1.2 Provincial Chambers of Agriculture

Under the Austrian Federal Constitution, the establishment of representative bodies in the field of agriculture and forestry falls under the authority of the Provincial Diets. Therefore, the National Assembly cannot set up a Federal Chamber of Agriculture and Forestry without amending the Constitution. Each of the nine federal provinces of Austria has its own Chamber of Agriculture set up by provincial legislation of the province concerned.

2.1.3 Centralized organization of the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture

The articles of association of the Presidential Conference explicitly refer to the exclusive purpose of the foundation of the association, i.e., to form a "centralized organization of the Austrian Chambers of Agriculture". Accordingly, the Presidential Conference is based in Vienna; its scope of activities extends over all of Austria. Membership in the Presidential Conference is restricted to the Chambers of Agriculture and the Austrian Raiffeisen Association. The objective of the association is to promote agriculture and forestry, with a view to their macro-economic tasks, and to represent their common interests.

In pursuance of the objectives of the association, the Presidential Conference has to:

- submit proposals and expert opinions to the authorities, in particular with regard to bills and draft regulations, and to advise the authorities;

- delegate representatives to other organizations on behalf of the Chambers of Agriculture and propose candidates for posts to be filled;

- promote cooperation among the Chambers of Agriculture and intensify their relations with agricultural cooperatives;

- establish statistical services and promote the exchange of agricultural and economic information;

- establish and operate facilities for the further education of members of the Chambers and representatives and employees of cooperatives;

- organize joint events;

- participate in the public administration of the delegated field of activity;

- cooperate with representative bodies of agriculture and forestry of other countries;

- promote the sale of agricultural and forestry products through the creation of proprietary rights (trademarks) for agricultural products.

2.1.4 The coordinating mandate of the Presidential Conference

To take into account the objectives of the association, which contain a reference to the macro-economic tasks and the common interests of agriculture and forestry, the Presidential Conference has to fulfil the tasks of the Chamber of Agriculture, as defined in the individual provincial acts, at the national level. On the one hand, the Presidential Conference has to deal with issues concerning all Chambers and their members in the same way, such as fiscal legislation and social security. On the other hand, the Presidential Conference also has to take into account its coordinating mandate and consider matters of concern to individual Chambers and their members only, but which are of common interest to agriculture and forestry throughout Austria, e. g., land consolidation, real estate transactions, agricultural teaching establishments, animal breeding and nature conservation.

2.2 The Conference of Presidents

The Presidential Conference acts through the President, the Executive Committee, the Board, known as "Conference of Presidents", and the General Assembly. The President is elected from among the presidents of the Chambers of Agriculture and remains president of his Chamber during his term of office. He represents the Presidential Conference in its external relations, manages its business and presides over the Conference of Presidents and the General Assembly. He serves a four-year term of office, as do the two vice-presidents, who are also elected from among the presidents of the Chambers of Agriculture.

The President and the Vice-Presidents make up the Executive Committee, which prepares the decisions to be taken by the Conference of Presidents (the Board). It usually meets once a month under the chairmanship of the President; all the necessary resolutions in connection with its activities are adopted by simple majority. All the presidents of the Chambers of Agriculture and two representatives of the Austrian Raiffeisen Association are members of the Conference of Presidents.

The Secretary General of the Presidential Conference, the Secretaries General of the Chambers' Offices and the Secretary General of the Raiffeisen Association attend the meetings as advisers. The General Assembly, which meets once a year, has to fulfil all the tasks required under the law of associations, i.e., adopt the activity report, approve the accounts of the association, elect auditors and - if need arises - consider amendments of the articles of association. The composition of the General Assembly is basically the same as that of the Board.

As can be seen, the bodies of the Presidential Conference follow the democratic principles and the acts governing the provincial Chambers of Agriculture. According to these acts, it is the president of the Chamber who represents the Chamber in its external relations, i.e., also in a joint, central organization. The Presidential Conference acts through its office-holders, as do the Chambers of Agriculture.

According to a provision of the articles of association, study groups, commissions and advisory councils have been created to consider specific questions (mountain farming, women in agriculture, rural youth, trade policy, corn growing, dairy farming, cattle farming, forestry and timber trade, legal and fiscal policy, social policy and labour legislation, education and training, regional planning, transboundary environmental protection, subsistence farming, wine growing, shared use of machinery, tourist trade and milk promotion), each operating under the chairmanship of a member of the Executive Committee or a representative of a provincial Chamber of Agriculture. These bodies have to report on their activities and submit proposals for resolutions to the Presidential Conference.

The Presidential Conference does not have the right to collect levies; basically, it covers its expenses from the association fees paid by its members. The General Secretariat, headed by the Secretary General, is in charge of the Presidential Conference's day-to-day business; compared with other centralized bodies representing the interests of occupational groups, its staff is relatively small.

2.3 The balance of interests

One of the guiding principles of the Presidential Conference, as derived from its articles of association, is its federalist set-up, manifested by the presidency of one of the nine presidents of the provincial Chambers of Agriculture. Therefore, the activity of the Presidential Conference is determined largely by the need for a continuous balancing of interests. The federalist organization of the Presidential Conference makes it desirable and possible for the Chambers of Agriculture to be directly involved not only in the formation of intent but also in the representation of interests at the federal level.

2.4 Activities of the Presidential Conference

The scope of activities of the Presidential Conference, as outlined in the articles of association, and derived from the acts governing the provincial Chambers of Agriculture, includes all the activities usually carried out by chambers in respect of the representation of members' interests, i.e. counselling of members, representation vis-à-vis the state and other occupational groups and participation in government activities.

Basically, the activities of the Presidential Conference are determined by the expectations of the farmers and therefore subject to changes in emphasis. Its efforts are by no means limited to a struggle for higher prices for agricultural products or against burdens imposed by the public sector, which is entirely in keeping with the role played by other bodies representing occupational groups in Austria. Its main concern is to secure an adequate income for the farming community, to ensure farmers satisfactory living conditions and that their work be acknowledged by society.

An essential prerequisite for any successful effort made to meet farmers' concerns is to make the population aware of the importance of agriculture and forestry for the economy as a whole and the standard of living of the individual citizen. In exercising its tasks as a body representing the interests of agriculture and forestry, the Presidential Conference has been given the right to pronounce opinions on draft bills and regulations introduced by federal ministries (Fed. Law Gazette Nr. 259/1924, 222/1931). Approximately 200 drafts are received for consideration every year.

Moreover, the Presidential Conference has been granted rights of participation by more than 40 federal acts passed since the establishment of the Second Republic; in particular, it is entitled to be represented on numerous advisory councils and committees and to be heard on specific issues. Thus, the Presidential Conference - as well as other chambers in Austria - is firmly rooted in the federal legal system, even though its foundation was not based on a federal act.

2.4.1 The Presidential Conference and the Federal Government

In fulfilling its tasks, the Presidential Conference always tries to maintain good, business-like relations with the central authorities of the federal government (federal ministries) and to cooperate with them in an atmosphere that is free of tensions. Through its coordinating functions and, above all, its efforts to ensure a rapid flow of information between the provincial Chambers of Agriculture and other organizations, the Presidential Conference relieves other authorities of essential tasks which these would have to take in the absence of a centralized representative body.

2.5 Joint commissions for cooperation

The relationship to other bodies representing the interests of occupational groups is largely determined by cooperation within the framework of social partnership. Important decisions, substantially influencing the country's economic policy, are taken and the basis for decisions to be taken by public bodies are worked out. Cooperation in the decision-making process implies shared responsibilities. A continual dialogue among bodies representing occupational groups and the willingness to work towards the establishment of a proper balance throughout the economy are essential prerequisites for the functioning of a social partnership. This is entirely in keeping with the Presidential Conference's articles of association, which explicitly provide for the establishment of joint commissions for cooperation with other representative bodies.

2.6 Relations between occupational groups and political parties

Finally, a few words should be said about the relations existing between a centralized body representing the interests of an occupational group and the political parties. Legislation and the execution of the law are the very essence of politics. Parties and party organizations campaign in democratic elections to bodies representing the interests of occupational groups (chambers). In accordance with the democratic election results, the elected representatives of the majority groups are in a stronger position.

The activities of a body authorized to represent the interests of an occupational group must also include contacts with political parties and their elected representatives, if these are to be convinced of the need for legislative and executive measures in the interest of the farmers. Naturally, contacts are most intensive with those parties represented in Parliament which have always shown more interest in farmer's concerns. This does in no way interfere with the fulfilment of obligations to all members imposed by the law and the articles of association.

Working for the benefit of the farming community, the Presidential Conference - as well as the Chambers of Agriculture in their respective fields of activity - makes every effort to preserve the material basis of farming, to safeguard the economic and legal independence of farmers and to assure them an adequate position in society. This involves a large number of tasks which can only be fulfilled by an efficient organization supported by the confidence of its members.

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