Stephan Wagner loves projects; in many ways, they’ve defined his life. He’s founded an IT consulting company and has early plans for a new business, but his latest venture jumps, bleats and has some of the softest wool in the world.
Wagner meets me at the bus stop in Hemberg, the closest village to his farm. He seems at home here, greeting everyone he sees with an easy smile and a gentle manner as we stop by the grocery store to pick up some milk.
And this has been home to several generations of his family, first to his grandfather, who bought the farm as an investment when the land was cheap, and then to his father, who would bring his young son here as a child and instilled in him a love of the mountains and life among nature.
Wagner hops into his Land Rover, joined in the back by his dog, Gwen, and takes us up a windy road for about 15 minutes. He says it’s normally a nice walk with beautiful views of the Appenzeller and Glarner Alps, but today, a thick fog envelops the fields and there’s more than a dusting of snow on the ground.
We’re turning up a long driveway and approaching a farmhouse when a figure darts in front of us and disappears into the barn. Huddled in there are the goats, with long horns, long hair and funny beards that trail almost to the ground. It’s their woolly cashmere undercoat, combed regularly to yield precious fibres, that’s turned into some of the softest and most luxurious textiles available.
As we make our way into the house, the mysterious figure presents himself – it’s Samuel, a bright, enthusiastic young man who has been living with Wagner and his partner, Andrea Etter, during the week for several years as part of a work programme for the developmentally disabled. He helps around the farm and has become part of the family, almost another “project” for Wagner that involves love, patience and a lot of humour.
Etter greets us and mentions to Wagner that a woman had called wanting to buy three kilograms of cashmere wool, but they just won’t be able to deliver.
“We’ll have to tell her no,” Wagner agrees. They choose carefully who gets the available wool – priority might go to a fair trade project in Kyrgyzstan, for example, or to Etter herself, who weaves much of it into finished textile products that she mostly sells online.
“Right now, we don’t have a problem with selling the wool – our problem is production,” Wagner says. “We’re an organic farm. We make the entire production chain transparent to our customers, and our products are not treated with chemicals.”
Demand for the luxury product among textile designers, knitters and all sorts of other customers from around the world is just too high for the supply he and the other cashmere goat farmers in the Alpine Cashmere Association can produce, he adds.
The association – another project launched by Wagner but now run communally – counts among its members roughly half of the cashmere goat farmers in Europe, according to Wagner. They exchange ideas and best practices about caring for and producing wool from the animals whose native home is the arid steppes of Asia.
Working the land
When Wagner first moved to the farm, his plan was just to live there and rent out the land to a farmer, as his father and grandfather had done before him. He commuted the two hours to Zurich every day to work full-time at an IT company.
At a certain point, though, he started to wonder why he was living so far from civilisation if not to take advantage of the setting and make use of the land. So, he started thinking about what he could use it for, and eventually settled on raising cashmere goats, after considering certain factors like how much care they needed and what the market would be like for the wool they produced. Goats were an easy choice, because he already had some experience working with them and they fit into the mountain landscape quite naturally.
“When I was a young boy, nine years old, I helped out on an alp for the first time and had to care for the goats,” he says. “I developed a relationship with them, came to understood what kind of an animal it was.”
“Later, I worked on a farm in the Fribourg region which mostly had cows, but the neighbour had 300 goats and three nice-looking daughters, so I was there a lot,” he adds with a grin.
Today, the 54-year-old Wagner dedicates 20% of his time to running the farm and 80% to running his IT consulting company. Etter, a bank IT employee-turned cheesemaker-turned goat farmer, does exactly the opposite – 80% for the farm, 20% for the IT business. They usually work from home, with the occasional trip to Zurich for client meetings and the like.
“I’m the manager of the IT company, and I do all the things that no one else wants to do,” Wagner chuckles. “In many of my projects I’ve been able to use the skills I have and take advantage of the fact that I am just as at home in the IT sector as I am on the farm.”
In the end, he says, the two worlds of managing goats and managing employees and contracts aren’t so different from one another. In fact, every project Wagner has set his mind to – from studying geophysics and mechanical engineering at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology to writing a doctoral thesis on the mechanics of ice and learning to work with computers – have all required a keen sense of curiosity, an easy-going personality, a love of nature and a realistic sense of what’s possible.
Indeed, Wagner is quick to admit that the goat farm project has reached the capacity of what he and Etter are able to put into it – though she chimes in from the kitchen that she’d love to have more goats, as many as 200.
“But someone has to do it, Andrea!” Wagner gently chides his partner, laughing all along. Then he admits she’s right: if they would really want to make their living solely from the goat farm, they’d have to increase their herd to at least 200 heads. But it’s clear he has too many interests to confine himself to just one project – he says his next venture will involve “old motorcycles”, though he doesn’t offer many details just yet.
“In the future, I’ll probably invest less time into this farm than I have up till now,” he says. “This is a part of my life, but it’s not my whole life.“
“I get involved in things that bring me joy. I’m not getting any younger, and at some point you just have go for it if you really want to make it happen.”
Wandering through mountains – and life
If one object were to define Wagner, he reckons it would be his mountain climbing boot: he is an avid mountain climber and believes the peaks define Swiss agriculture and bind the country together.
“We have four language regions, but we Swiss all identify ourselves through the alpine highlands of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. That’s our common denominator.”
And, the mountains are where he feels most at home, he says – the simple pleasure of wandering among them has influenced the way he’s chosen to live his life.
“I like wandering among different projects, different worlds. I feel at home in the world of agriculture, but I need something more, like technical work, working with people. I like bringing many aspects under one roof while wandering among those different worlds and through life.”