Sunday, April 1, 2007

Pasture emerges from powder

About this time in Switzerland, the remaining patches of snow on ski slopes are getting too far apart for skiers to jump across. The alpine flowers are opening up on the valley floors, and farmers are putting their cows out to pasture for the first time since fall.

The Swiss might be the only people in the developed world who still practice serious transhumance agriculture. Though generous government subsidies prop their system up (one of many reasons why the Swiss resist joining the EU—Brussels would never allow such payments), it makes a good deal of sense economically and environmentally.

Several of our ski instructors at Winter Term, the school where I worked last year, are exclusively dairy farmers in warmer months. In fact, they have cows year round, but in the winter, chores consist of little more than keeping feed available and cleaning the stalls, which can be accomplished at early morning and late afternoon chore times. The combination of occupations would seem bizarre in America, but it makes perfect sense in Switzerland, where the dairy and ski industries are intertwined.

Swiss Brown Cows, which produce much creamier milk than Holsteins, are a hardy breed capable of withstanding a good hike and chilly temperatures. Once they’ve exhausted the supply of buttercups and fresh grass at the valley floor, the farmer, with the help of his sheep dog, moves them partway up the mountain to unmunched fields.

Here’s where Swiss efficiency kicks in. The ski slopes, which are mostly owned by farmers and only rented to resorts in the winter, revert to pasture in the summer. Most farmers have three barns—one in the valley, one halfway up the mountain, and one towards the top, often above treeline. The farmer moves his cows according to the weather and condition of his fields, which he can tell because Swiss Brown Cows are very opinionated about which flowers they like to eat. If the bitter ones are gone, then it’s time to move. And, since the alpine flowers bloom later on the mountains than in the valley, a fresh crop is waiting to be devoured when the valley is exhausted.

Unfortunately, some farmers are beginning to use Holsteins over Swiss Browns because Holsteins give much more milk, though of inferior quality. Even Switzerland, known worldwide for its fine chocolate, is bending to the pressure of demand.

The Swiss Browns are curious, and when we walked past with a group of schoolkids, they often came tumbling down the hillside to investigate us, their bells clanging wildly.

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