Holy Cow! Cheese and Cultural Identity in the Swiss Alps

HolyCow_AlpLevelsRole: Project Designer, Writer, Researcher  -  Location: The Alps

Situating the Industry: 16th-18th C Establishment of Dairy Practices

It is unclear how the 16th century dairy farming industry initially decided to situate itself among the plateaus in the Swiss Alps, or if there was any sort of decision or agreement to do so. The initial move into the mountains has been considered by most historians to have been a form of favoritism in resource allocation towards cash and subsistence crops that require arable soil. Naturally occurring prairies in the low-lands were mostly converted to grain producing plots for this purpose. Land for livestock to graze was relegated to the lower plateaus of the Alps and the bulk of the dairy industry went with it. This arrangement turned out to benefi t both industries for the Alps were an abundant source of fodder for livestock due to the limited use of alpine land for growing crops. This can be explained by the high humidity and cold weather characteristic of the Alps which induces a shorter vegetation period than in the valley and is not desirable for most forms of agriculture.HolyCow_FattierCheese This environment however is benefi cial to grazing livestock for the plants that grow at this altitude contain higher protein and fat contents due to the intensity of sunshine. It follows that what an animal ingests has direct effects on the product that it produces. Livestock that live in these condition, though slower to fatten and producing less milk, were found to produce tastier and healthier milk. Current samples indicate a 15-30% higher fat content (in the form of essential and vegetable oils) and higher percentages of ethereal oils (for natural flavoring) in cheese from the Alps compared to those produced in the valley. Alpine cattle were also discovered to be healthier with greater resistance to diseases and it was believed that those that ate cheese originating from the Alps would likewise benefi t with a resulting healthy constitution. The association between the Alps and health dates back far into pre-modern times with an old farmer’s proverb that goes, “the grass is always better the higher one goes, and at the top it is so good that even farmers might like to eat it.”

Graduated Farming and Transhumance

And so the higher they went into the Alps to situate their dairy farms and herd the cattle in greener pastures. Once up in the mountains, farmers developed a highly structured system of production that is still in practice today. The system that was developed, which is still used today, is called Graduated Farming which is a hierarchical organization of grazing pastures divided according to what the livestock is intended to produce. The lowest, most fertile Alpine meadows are for hay making and dairy cow pastures. Above that are pastures for non-milk cattle production. At the highest point for grazing, the landscape is at its roughest and driest and the steep slopes are used for sheep grazing. *source: Erickson, Franklin C. “Transhumance in the Land Economy of Schachenthal.”, 1938. This production system effectively coordinates the use of limited land resources which are dependent on seasons. The Alps are not habitable year-round, so a certain reliance on the valley below has always been a part of the process. The annual cycle usually consists of a permanent mountain farm settlement, farms in the valley or lower belt for the winter months, and several intermediary settlements used part time. This seasonal migration of cattle from the village to the Alps and back has significantly impacted the landscape in the Alps, for it is because of the continued practice of transhumance that most of the area below 2000 meters has been cleared of forest and maintained as the rolling green pastures that we know it as. *source: Birmingham, D. Switzerland: A Village History, 2000. Transhumance has also played a key role in the preservation of traditional Swiss culture such as Yodelling and the Alphorn which are intimately connected to the high pastures and are still performed today during the annual procession of cows. Today there are about 380,000 cows and 200,000 sheep that still make this annual migration to supports the high demand for quality swiss dairy products. *source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumance#The_Alps

Fatty Cheese Flourishes

Cheese making proved to be a lucrative and stabile industry and between the 16th and 18th centuries, those farmers that could not subsist through farming or cattle trade entered the fatty cheese business. With the rising demand for cheese in the cities and the great transportability and tradability of fatty cheeses, the business of fatty cheeses flourished. As transportation and technology advanced, many farmers in the low-lands began investing in the process by raising dairy cows that could be brought up to the mountains by communal herdsman or striking a deal with Alpine farmers with assistance during the winter monthsHolyCow_CheeseInput in exchange for a piece of the final product. Up until the close of the 18th century, the cheese industry of the Alps proved to be a lucrative investment for farmers in the valleys. *source: Birmingham, D. Switzerland: A Village History, 2000. Given that a single 100kg wheel of cheese requires at least 15 cows in the most productive season, a strictly enforced system of accessing resources was necessary to prevent overgrazing (which would not give vegetation enough time to recover) and undergrazing (which turns underused pastures into weeds). A system of flexible grazing and range management was enforced to ensure that the Alpine pastures, which were the most productive economic zone as well as the most sensitive ecological zone, could be sustained. This involved a balance between private ownership and communal or social control. *source: Orland, B. “Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use”, 2004.

Communal Grazing

Farmers who shared the land needed to work together and manage shared resources by keeping ownership and rights of usage separate. There was regulated access to and use of mountainous meadows through a system involving a shared communal pasture. Each family of farmers usually owned between 1 to 3 cows (for that was all they could afford to care for) that they would give to 1 or 2 herdsman to care for during the grazing months. The herdsmen would bring the collection of cows to a clearly partitioned communal pasture. Cows that graze in these pastures would then be brought to the community dairy farm to be milked and the milk would then in turn be processed into cheese. After the aging process of up to 1 year, the cheese would then be redistributed to the farmers proportionate to the amount of cows each farmer contributed towards the process in the beginning. This cheese distribution process, known as chaesteilet, is a tradition resembling a fair or celebratory event where the community of farmers congregate to collect their cheese and enjoy each others company. Community interaction and group involvement is apparent in nearly all parts of the process of producing cheese, from the maintenance of the landscape through to the ownership of products from a typical Alpine summer *source: Orland, B. “Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use”, 2004.HolyCow_CommunalGrazing

Land Enclosure and Inheritance

The enclosure of land beginning in the mid 1600’s involved the privatization of these communal meadows and fields which displaced many of the poorer farmers. Enclosure of land reduced the need for labor and increased the need for capital to purchase or retain land. The wealthier farmers, who had more land than labor, benefited from the restructuring of cheese production through the reduction of production costs with minimized labor input. The poorer farmers, with larger families and fewer fi elds, and who survived on renting out their labors were the ones who lost out
under such circumstances. Under this system, the rich became richer and the poor were driven out. Those farmers that managed to hold out profi ted greatly and continued the tradition of fine cheese. Land enclosure in the Swiss Alps can also be seen to have been a benefi t to the cheese making industry by providing the competitive edge necessary for technological advancement and refinement of quality control. *source: Birmingham, D. Switzerland: A Village History, 2000. Plots sizes that determine the characteristic of the pastures in the Swiss Alps have remained nearly the same as they were in the 16th century. This preservation of the past can partially be attributed to the traditional practices of inheritance that emphasize equity of inheritance over absolute sameness. What this means is that farmland does not get split up among the next generation in equal size parcels, but through a combination of landscape factors that determine which child gets ownership of which parcel. This inheritance pattern has allowed for farms to remain intact rather than being split up. Farm sizes have remain on average in the 5 hectare range for centuries, the largest plot size being 10 hectares, which is the ecological limits of a self-suffi cient Alpine farm. *source: Bently, J. “Economic and Ecological Approaches to Land Fragmentation: In Defense of a Much-Maligned Phenomenon.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1987.

Competition with Low-Lands

While an Alpine farm can be maintained at the maximum of 10 hectares to still be profi table, a typical farm in the valley stretches on average over 25 hectares. The issue of scale, along with post-eighteenth century agricultural reforms which pushed for the modernization of agriculture were what gave room for the development of a competitive dairy industry in the low-lands. The continued steady drop in the number of operating farms in the Alps can be attributed to this situation. The production of cheese moved from the mountains to the valley creating a seemingly insurmountable problem for the mountain dairy farming industry. With farmers gradually leaving their posts in the mountain for a better chance in the city, the under-use of the mountain regions has been a topic of environmental concern. Possible tightening of government assistance looming in the future and is another potential threat.

Agricultural Reforms Favor Valley Production

This move down to the valley resulting in a crisis in the mountains happened around the time of the Industrial Revolution (concentrated between 1770-1773). It was not a direct result of the era’s technological achievements as previously considered. The current theory is that post-eighteenth century agricultural reforms that pushed for the modernization of agriculture created the unintended “side effects”. Part of the reform measures was the abolishment of old style meadow farming in all arable farming regions. Land was no longer allowed to lie fallow if there was the potential of growing crops upon it. This was a significant interference with established grazing pastures. Another part of the reform act was the planting of feed plants to allow for year-round fodder in more places. This implied that there was no longer a need to rely on the natural cycle of regeneration. Fodder became cheap and plentiful and the issue of overgrazing seemingly disappeared. Additionally, the reform introduced the practice of summer stall feeding which made for an easy way to collect cattle dung and manure. Since fodder could now be sown and controlled, cattle no longer need to graze among open pastures and their manure could be used to grow the fodder or sold off to crop farmers. This practice produced a surplus of dung which in turn instigated yet one more regulation which was the
requirement for heavier fertilizing (laced with artifi cal components) which was an impedement for farmers in the Alps still practicing traditional grazing methods. *source: Orland, B. “Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use”. The natural advantage that these reform movements created for valley production over mountain production was evident. Where once farmers in the valley were forcing the growth of grain, there began a new trend to
increase their incomes through artifi cial meadows. In many low-land areas, there was already a natural advantage
of abundant vegetation. These improvements in the feeding situation in the lowlands, along with the inevitable transportation advantages of a temperate, relatively level landscape resulted in a signifi cant segement of the dairying industry finding itself forced from the mountains. The voice of reformers proclaimed the mountains to be impediments to innovation but when it came down to it, fatty cheese made with Alpine milk was still superior in quality and taste. Unable to match these high standards, valley production has never been able to fully displace operations in the Alps. It can also be argued that conditions in the Alps were in fact key to the development of innovative technology in the diary industry. The assumption that conditions in the Alps are backwards and “behind-the-times” is a false one. The truth is that some of the industry standards of today relating to processing and storage were in fact developed or refined up in the Alps.

Subsidies and Outside Control

Alpine farms have proved their worth in quality and innovation. There is however a battle that is still being fought regarding the argument that still exits today against farming in the Alps under government assistance. Alpine farms are highly subsidized and would not be around today without this outside intervention. These small, family run businesses are not a lucrative enterprise in the modern world, given the low production levels and high skill levels neccessary to run them. Current discussions between leaders regarding the lowering or even removal of all farm subsidies threatens the preservation of the Alpine dairy industry. *source: Orland, B. “Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use”

Preservation of the Industry

Besides the fact that cheese from the Swiss Alps are world renown for their quality and consistency, a strong argument for the preservation of the alpine dairy industry is that it supports the tourism industry through the preservation of a regionally iconic landscape. The postcard image of the Alps that we envision today is none other than a product of this human intervention upon the land with plows and cattle. The clearing of forests for farming purposes and the settlement of these pastures has shaped the Alpine landscape into the one that we’ve come to associate with characters like Heidi running down gently sloping hills of green in the fresh mountain air. This image is endangered by the steadily shinking number of operating dairy farms in the Alps. With the diminishing presence of the Alpine dairy industry comes the structural simplification and impoverishment of the landscape. As farms continue to shut down operations, various plant communities that rely on the annual feeding cycle for regeneration die off and the landscape becomes littered
with weeds. Continued grazing has resulted in a transformation of the plant communities from old-growth grass and tall herb communities into plants that are said to have a favorable effect on milk. These plants are mostly yellow in color and include buttercups, dandelions, and “michkrauwt “or milkwort. Such growths could only have been possible through the continued maintenance and regulation of the landscape through traditional Alpine farming practices. *source: Orland, B. “Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use”

This is topic of concern for the drop in numbers of operative farms in the Alps creates a situation of undergrazing which diminishes the quality of the soil and vegetation. The intimate connection that the livestock and farmers have with their beloved Alpine land is evident. Just as the farmers rely on the moutain’s natural resources for the creation of quality cheese, it is imperative that this land be used by the farmers to maintain its beauty and health. World trade talks that question the fairness of heavy handed government subsides to assist Alpine farms mostly focus on the price of cheese as a source of conflict. What fails to be given more significance is the impact that the disappearance of farming in the Alps will have on the environment which will then impact the tourist industry and fi nally the Swiss economy. Alpine cheese production is a vital link in this chain of events, for it is not about the preservation of the past, but the preservation of a cultural identity.

Professor Dorothee Imbert’s Seminar at Harvard Graduate School of Design titled “Landscape and/in the City: The Case of Switzerland”

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