The powerful rays of the early-morning sun slowly burn through the mist clinging to the peak of the Aiguilles Rouges in the Val d’Hérens valley in canton Valais.
On the opposite side of the valley, Lise es-Borrat is up early, preparing lunch for hungry hikers who may stop off at her mountain cafe, situated at 2,151m on the Loveignoz pasture, a good four-hour walk from the nearby village of Mase.
A gentle clanging draws near as Laurent, her young cowhand from Les Diablerets, saunters by with some of the 85 cows that live here from mid-June to mid-September.
“It’s very idyllic,” she smiles. “But it’s also a very tough life in the mountains. We have to be realistic.”
Es-Borrat is one of thousands of people who move to the high alpine pastures each summer to look after herds and flocks, make cheese and grind out a living.
In canton Valais alone, 20,000 cows made the trek up the mountains this year to enjoy the lush green grass there. Around 30 per cent of mountain farming income comes from high mountain pastures, which also account for a third of all Swiss farmland.
Growing up as the daughter of a cattle trader from Blonay in canton Vaud, Lise initially wanted to be a nurse, but quickly realized that her life was in the mountains with cows.
Married to a Valais farmer, she first came up to Loveignoz in 1978 with her husband, children and cows, and was immediately won over by its magic.
“This place is very symbolic; it’s the most important place in my life,” she said. “I come here to recharge my batteries through nature – the sunrises and sunsets, the smell of the trees, flowers and morning dew.”
She has returned every summer for the past 33 years, either with her family’s herd, or, when her husband died in 1990, to look after other people’s cattle.
In 2007 her doctor told her she had to slow down, so she stopped making cheese herself – which she had been doing for the past 30 years – handing over to her boyfriend, Jean-Vincent, a former teacher.
“Changed my life”
Despite their hard work, the economic situation remained “very difficult” and it was clear that summering cows and cheese making would not suffice to ensure Loveignoz’s long-term survival.
It was at that time that the Loveignoz pasture committee – a group that co-owns the land – proposed the idea of a mountain cafe to diversify her income. The total investment came to SFr250,000 ($238,565), of which SFr30,000 was covered by the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation.
“When they suggested the idea back then, I wasn’t that much in favour, as I thought it would change the soul of the mountain,” said Es-Borrat.
But surprised by the first two years’ success, she has now been won over by her new challenge as boss of a small business, employing four people who look after the animals, make highly sought-after cheese and offer welcome mountain food and drinks.
“It’s clear that it’s changed my life,” she said.
Inside, her colleague Josephine, who helps run the cafe, scrapes away at a pile of huge potatoes. Today’s menu is cheese gratin with ham and salad, followed by homemade lemon tart, washed down with apple juice, thyme tea or a glass of one of Lise’s favourite Valais red wines.
“I do things simply; it’s homemade with lots of heart,” said Lise. “But if no one comes, I’m not too concerned as I have lots of other things to do. All I want is for this place to turn over, to be able to pay the staff and the rest should follow.”
Today they are expecting to feed around twenty people, including several regulars, but predicting numbers in the mountains can be hit and miss, explains Josephine.
With the milk from the 85 cows they look after, Loveignoz also produces 5,500 kg of raclette and tomme cheese each year, which is mostly sold on the spot.
“I have regular customers who have bought for the past 30 years, as well new ones,” she said. “There are more and more reservations, some tourists just buy a small piece, but most buy whole cheeses for their family or friends, ten at a time which they collect in September.”
According to the Consortium of Swiss Alpine Regions, the economic situation in the Swiss Alps is picking up. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of people employed there increased by 30,000 – or 1.9 per cent a year – to 560,000, with eight per cent of them involved in farming activities.
Es-Borrat is sceptical about these figures, however.
“There are more tourists, people looking to enjoy the mountains, but from a work perspective it’s much harder to find motivated people who want to come and work on the pastures,” she said. “They do three months then they have to find other work.”
And despite the success of her cheese and cafe, she still does not have much money left over.
For the rest of the year she survives thanks to her widow’s pension, government subsidies and a very simple lifestyle, and remains upbeat about the future.
“I’m lucky to be like that, as it allows me to be happy with what I’ve got – not very much, people might say – but I’ve got a car and food on the table every day, and now and again we go to a restaurant, and I’m able to put away food reserves like pork and beef for winter.”
“Cattle, nature, something to eat and drink – that’s all I need.”
Simon Bradley in Loveignoz, swissinfo.ch
Swiss Mountain Aid
The Swiss Mountain Aid foundation last year funded over 500 livelihood projects in the Swiss Alps to the tune of SFr20 million ($18.9 million) to help people carve out an existence in the tough alpine environment.
An estimated 60,000 people live in high-alpine regions in Switzerland, of whom around 7,500 work as farmers.
Mountain farmers may receive a share of the SFr2.5 billion in direct payments or state subsidies every year, but they still struggle, says the foundation. Many survive only because they have taken up a second occupation.
Agriculture in Switzerland is among the European average when it comes to the number of the number of people it employs (5.4% of the active population) and its added value (1.2% of GDP).
Animal production accounts for nearly three-quarters of Swiss agricultural production. Swiss farmers produce about three-fifths of the food consumed in the country.
Of more than 92,000 farms in 1990, there were just over 61,800 left by 2008. Swiss farmers have suffered a drop in income of at least ten per cent in the past decade.
According to a 2006 study by the Agroscope agricultural research centre in Tänikon and the Zurich-based consulting group Infras, one-fifth of alpine farms could go out of business over the next ten years.
Swiss farmers receive SFr2.5 billion ($1.96 billion) in direct payments or state subsidies every year. Some estimates suggest that supporting farming costs the Swiss taxpayer SFr4 billion annually.
The agricultural sector is estimated to generate SFr2.9 billion in income in 2009. A five per cent drop in output compared with the previous year has been triggered mainly by the fall in prices for products such as milk and cereals.