Cows for hire – farmer milks global interest

From left to right: Nina (the cow), Leah Drennan, Joah Iannotta swissinfo.ch

An alpine dairy farmer with a flair for marketing has come up with a novel way of selling his mountain cheese.

This content was published on September 16, 2003 - 11:41

He put his cows up for hire on the Internet and was overwhelmed by requests from as far away as Japan, South Africa and the United States.

Farmer Paul Wyler has been leasing cows to local restaurants for the past 20 years, but decided this year to advertise the scheme on the Internet.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think it would be so popular,” says Wyler.

Over the weekend, the cow-leasers were summoned to his alpine farm to pick up their cheese.

Mountain pastures

Chewing the cud in a mountain pasture high above Lake Brienz in the Bernese Oberland, Nina, a big, brown Swiss cow seems blissfully unaware that she’s been hired out for the summer to an American living in southern Germany.

Up until this year, the summers have been rather routine for Nina and her 20 companions: grazing on sweet alpine flowers, being milked in the early morning and late afternoon, come rain or shine.

But this year, they have had to put up with curious visitors from the city like Leah Drennan who paid SFr380 ($275) to lease Nina for the summer.

“I was reading the paper and saw ‘Cow-leasing scheme opens in Switzerland’. Since we were planning on going to the Montreux Jazz festival that weekend I thought the farm might be on the way and it was,” explains Drennan.

Birthday gift

Drennan decided that leasing a cow would make an ideal birthday gift to herself.

“I remember sitting in the other room and hearing her say: ‘Guess what, we can lease a cow in Switzerland!’,” remembers her friend Joah Iannotta.

“I thought the Bavarian air might have gotten to her so I asked her to repeat herself.”

The two Americans quickly signed a contract giving them the right to call Nina their own for the duration of the summer, as well as the right to purchase at a reduced rate all the cheese made from her milk – between 70 and 100 kilograms.

In return, they had to pay SFr380 and agree to do four hours of hard labour on the alpine farm. In their case, it amounted to removing stones from the pastures.

The biggest concern now for the Americans, says Iannotta, is being mistaken for cheese smugglers when they try to cross the border on their way home to Germany.

Sold out

The Muraro brothers from the city of Winterthur near Zurich also set their hearts on renting a cow, but initially ran into a bit of a problem.

“We wanted to lease a cow but they were all gone by the time we called,” recalls Vinzenz Muraro.

Fortunately for Muraro and his brother, who read about the idea on his way to work one morning, a cow became free when someone else cancelled their contract.

The happy brothers took over Britta, a bovine beauty they have yet to meet. “We’ve seen pictures of her. She’s brown and white, and big,” they chorus.

The Muraro brothers have already pledged much of the cheese to family and friends, and they are negotiating with a local shopkeeper in Winterthur to sell the remainder and make a return on their investment.

Success story

Wyler says the scheme is a good example of how Swiss farmers can market their products.

He reckons farmers have to become better businessmen if they want to survive, since government subsidies could soon be a thing of the past.

“Originally, we just wanted to find a way to sell the cheese as soon as possible and have the cash in hand,” explains Wyler.

“But I’ve always looked beyond that,” he continues. “Tourism and alpine farming go hand in hand, and I’m convinced that we can do a much better job promoting tourism and farming, so this project is one way of contributing to that.”

Because of the high demand for his cows, Wyler is seriously considering doubling the number of cattle for hire next year by joining forces with other farmers from the region, and permitting city slickers to rent half, or even just a quarter, of a cow.

The Americans and the Muraro brothers, however, will have none of that. They say they are not willing to share Nina or Britta with anyone else.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Axalp

Key facts

It costs SFr380 to lease a cow for the summer, and SFr16 per kilogram of cheese made from the milk of the leased cow.
Each cow produces enough milk for 70-100 kilograms of cheese.
Temporary owners are required to spend at least half a day doing manual labour on the alpine farm.

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In brief

Cows belonging to the Wylers are taken each summer to the alpine pastures called Tschingelfeld near the small ski resort of Axalp, above Lake Brienz.

The pastures are between 1,600 and 2,000 metres above sea level.

A cheesemaker employed by the Wylers makes up to 70 kilograms of “Alp cheese” a day over the course of the summer, using traditional methods.

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