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Night in the hay

When I first saw my "sleep in the hay" farm accommodations, I was a bit taken aback.

Not that I require fine rooms and silk sheets, of course, and sleeping on hay in a barn is much more comfortable than dirt or rocks under rain clouds like I'm used to. The barn, shall we say, was not exactly set up for a tourist. But after a while I learned that I'm their very first customer and my hosts are just as nice as can be.

Hosting hikers is a new idea for this farm, as its real business is preserving rare farm-animal breeds and raising them under extremely strict "Demeter" standards. As the founder, Gian Reto Lanfranchi-Federspiel explained to me in his halting French, Demeter goes well beyond mere organic. Demeter practices require the farmer to treat the entire farm as a self-sustaining organism. Gian Reto sees it in the context of the entire cosmos, and it's easy to see the passion and love he holds for his animals and land once you look past a certain rough farmer appearance.

Last night he took me out to one of his 400 tiny patches of land scattered across the neighboring valleys and mountains. We brought bread to some of his rare goats and sheep. After scrambling into the pasture near dusk, he called out in his native language – Romansh. The goats' bells could be heard in the forest long before we could see them running toward us. Once they emerged they were spectacular gray beasts with horns nearly like an ibex, and as friendly as could be. He says there are only 80 of this breed in the world, all in Switzerland. They lost a sheep to a bear last year, but none of their precious goats.

His wife, Simone, plays a large role in the breeding of these animals and many more that they have, including cattle, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Under certification and training from Pro Specie Rara, the "Swiss Foundation for the Cultural and Genetic Diversity of Plants and Animals," the goal is keep alive important historical breeds, many of which are considered better for eating as well as for the general ecology of farming. For example, his pigs have hair, which helps them with the -20°C winter temperatures here.

I asked Gian Reto how such labor-intensive farming can pay (he even cuts his own grass high in the mountains), and he says the government supplements it 60%. He has a degree in farming and has returned for many more training and certification courses, all of which include lessons in managing the subsidies. But there is no financial benefit to taking farming all the way to the Demeter level. That's purely a passion. He says he'll be a farmer until death.

You can learn more about their farm and see pictures of their children on their website, though for now it is only in German.