Alpine Farming: Yesterday and Today
"Wow, life on a high meadow farm…how lovely!" Sure it is. Breathtaking views, grazing cattle, a cozy-rustic atmosphere, sunshine and homemade pastries. But upon closer inspection, this romantic glorification turns out to be a bit of an illusion. Despite modern conveniences like electricity, internet, machines and better transport logistics, it's not easy to farm alpine pastures. Why do we still make the effort and how has the function of our huts changed over time?
In the 5th century, farmers were grazing animals above the tree line. Of course at that time, good paths were scarce. The valleys were mostly inaccessible and marshy. It took centuries before the valley floors were developed into reliable transport routes. The 7th century is generally what we consider to be the beginning of alpine farming and in the 14th and 15th centuries, the industry was flourishing. Butter and cheese were the best choice for preserving and transporting alpine milk and these products were sent down to their masters and monasteries. There wasn't much pastureland around the farms in the valley below since arable land was often planted with grains, making it necessary to graze the cows in far-flung mountain meadows. The high elevation was considered a Fountain of Youth for the animals who spent their summers on the high pasture – they were stronger and more robust.
Farming as Detox Program
In the 1950s alpine farming blossomed, but just ten years later things changed. With advances in equipment and cheap imported meats, the culture almost died out. There was a shortage of people who wanted to work the high farms; former herdsmen and women started taking jobs closer to home in factories.
But then something wonderful happened: tourist recreation saved our way of life. International guests as well as locals began exploring mountain paths, riding mountain bike trails and traversing ski pistes. They stopped in for refreshment at the huts, some staying overnight. Once again, there was an interest and desire for the products and services. This is also true for the Zillertal. We still drive the cattle up in springtime to the lower meadows and after a few weeks grazing here, the cows are driven further still to the high meadows or Hochleger where they spend the entire summer with someone like me.
Of course it’s not easy finding someone willing to work alone for months, caring for the animals, milking at dawn, making the cheese and serving food and drink to the public. Luckily, we still find good people (some even from cities) who are willing to take a cheese course and spend their summers in the mountains. Money is not the object. What draws people to this work is a time-out from a hectic, technology-driven lifestyle. Here in the high mountains, we still offer breathtaking views, grazing cows, a cozy-rustic atmosphere and sunshine.
In Austria there are approximately 8,400 high pastures, amounting to 20% of the country’s landmass. In the summer months 7,000 herdsmen and women manage around 500,000 dairy cows, beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats. In Tirol alone, there are more than 3,000 shepherds. Many customs in the rural communities trace their roots back to these ancient farm practices. These traditions enrich our events and festivities throughout the year and have gained appreciation from non-farmers and visitors alike.