Milking it on an alpine farm

Hans-Ueli Bieri lends a helping hand as a student scoops out the cheese curds

A writer from Berlin recently went into self-imposed exile on a Swiss alpine farm with a small herd of cattle as her only company.

This content was published on May 9, 2003 - 08:18

The writer was among a group of greenhorns who learned how to milk cows and make cheese at a school in the Bernese Oberland, before taking the farm reins into her own hands.

The Berlin scriptwriter, Tamara Staudt, worked on a Swiss alpine farm for the first time in 2002, and the call of the mountains has once again proved irresistible.

She has worked as a farmhand; and more recently she ran a farm alone with ten cows above the resort of Lenk.

Her duties included milking cows and making cheese from dawn until dusk, every day for about six weeks.

“I need the break from my work and normal surroundings to clear my head,” Staudt says, as she examines a tube containing bacterial culture used in the cheese making process.

There are teachers, cooks, artists, mechanics and carpenters among the students taking the one-week course at the agricultural school in the village of Hondrich.

Around half are women and a good number are from Germany. All have their reasons for being here.

“I would just like to have the experience,” says florist Doris Binggeli. “I like the mountains and I like cows.

Heidi high

"Everybody thinks that they will live like Heidi, but I also know it's hard work," she says.

Hans-Ueli Bieri instructs the group in the finer points of cheese making.

Today this involves checking the acidity of the starter cultures and stirring the milk at just the right speed until it reaches the optimal temperature, and the curds are the desired consistency.

"Many of the students have never been close to a real cow before coming here," Bieri smiles.

"After the one-week course they are expected to go and work on an alpine farm - it's definitely a challenge for them."

Swiss farms have become reliant on these idealistic men and women who are more at home in air-conditioned offices than in primitive mountain stables.

The school's Paul Indermühle estimates that about half of all Swiss alpine farms are run by people with no previous experience.

New challenge

A few, he says, are looking for work, but most are simply seeking a new challenge for a summer or two.

"While the number of alpine farms has remained stable there are fewer people working in agriculture," Indermühle explains.

"Swiss farmers have enough work to do on their valley farms so they need help if they are to run an alpine farm as well."

Because of plummeting prices for agricultural products, wages for farmhands in Switzerland have dropped.

They are paid about SFr3,000 a month ($2,285), which places them among the lowest wage earners in Switzerland.

This has resulted in fewer and fewer Swiss choosing a career in farming.

Queuing up

But there is still a queue to get into the course in Hondrich. The school has to turn away about one in every five applicants.

A woman from the German city of Wuppertal was accepted because she met one of the basic conditions - having already found a placement on a farm.

As she takes her turn stirring the milky mixture in the large copper vat, she says she has signed up because it is a unique chance to work in the Alps.

Instructor Bieri squeezes the liquid out of a handful of curds he scoops out of the vat and gives Staudt a soggy slab to taste.

For a moment she appears to be having second thoughts about whether she has made the right decision to come here.

"It has the consistency of rubber," she says. "It tastes like rubber, too."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

The five-day courses take place at the Inforama school in Hondrich in March and April.

The course costs about SFr600, which includes full board.

A good working knowledge of German and proof of having secured a placement on an alpine farm are two basic requirements for acceptance onto the course.

Inforama can provide details on how to go about finding placement on a suitable farm.

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