When Irene Clausen was born in Binn a few decades ago, there were perhaps 50 farmers in the valley.
Now her brother, Anton Walpen, is one of only four. He's immensely proud of his Swiss Brown cows, which have won numerous awards for the quality and quantity of their milk. And she is pleased to still have a farmer in the family, maintaining the old traditions in a shrinking community.
Irene left Binn as a teenager; the town was already too small for her. But now she's back, working for what's commonly written in English as the Binntal Nature Park, though that name is highly misleading. In French it's "Park paysager", meaning landscape park, and in German it's "Landshaftspark", meaning countryside park. As one of Switzerland's growing network of regional parks, the idea is as much to keep old communities and ways from disappearing as it is to protect nature. The motto is "Nature, culture, art, tourism, agriculture". Or, according to her boss at the park's office in Binn, Dominique Weissen, "finding a balance between protection and utilisation."
Anton Walpen let me sample the differences between cheese made in the alpage (an alpage being the higher altitude grazing ground and milking sheds used only in the summer) and cheese made from milk made by cows grazing hay in the winter. It's the first time I've had such a side-by-side comparison, and even my crusty tastebuds could easily tell the difference. The alpage cheese had considerably more flavor. It's almost like I could taste the flowers the cows ate. He then took me to the cheese cave, where Mrs Walpen was washing the cheese wheels with salt water. This must be done daily until the cheese sells. At the moment there isn't much cheese to wash, but when the milk and the cheese comes down from the heights in the fall, it's a multi-hour process.
Like the other farmers I met, Mr Walpen is not at all shy about the fact that the state subsidises his labours. It's the only way that farming can continue in the Alps. Otherwise the large-scale operations in the lowlands would completely out-compete high-altitude farming. Nice as cheese from the alpage tastes, there's only so much that consumers will pay. And if alpine farming were to die away, the ambience of the Alps would change with it. Pastures would become forest, old houses would decay.
The village of Binn looks as pretty as could be, but this beauty hides the difficulty of keeping it alive. There are now just seven children in the school, which goes to grade six and has a single teacher. As villages lose families they begin to share the schools, with certain grades being held in certain villages in a rotating order. For higher levels the kids get bused to bigger towns in lower valleys. Without opportunities for the kids, the families go, and so do the stores, and down it spirals. All that's left, and only in a few places at that, are "cold beds". Cold beds are vacation places that only get used a few times a year and contribute little to preserving a community. It's a huge issue throughout the Alps. Efforts like the Binntal Nature (Landscape, Countryside...) Park are leading the effort to find some kind of balance.