Will cheese-making give way to yoga?
In the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, workers rotate and clean wheels of fragrant cheese. After several months of aging, the product is sold in thick wedges to hungy hikers in the restaurant upstairs.
The video was shot through a wire mesh door kept closed to prevent unwanted contaminants in the cheese room.
The milk comes from 24 cows that graze moist green pastures all around. Many of of Austria’s high mountain grazing regions support a locally based micro-economy that benefits the environment and promotes the sustainability of the traditional summer pasturing practices. But not all of the Alms have been able to fight the rising economic tide of globalization and centralization. While official government policy is to promote mountain agriculture, there is also political pressure to produce at a scale that’s viable in the global economy. How to do both remains a challenge.
Austria’s mountain farms and pastures are an integral part of the cultural and environmental landscape. Driving cattle up to alpine grazing meadows, called Alms, started as soon as humans began keeping cattle, and the first officially recorded mention of an Alm came in 1212, more than 800 years ago. The rapid changes of climate and global politics and economics have sent waves rippling through institutions that have existed for centuries, and the mountain pasture way of life in Austria may be endangered.
Many of the long-time herders who track their flocks over the hills say they’ve felt the changes. Spring has been coming several weeks earlier than just 20 years ago, which means driving the cattle up the mountain much earlier. That changes the timing of when workers are needed in the dairy farms, and also affects the timing of the bloom in the hay and pasture fields. In turn, those changes may affect insects and birds that also depend on finding food at a certain time.
Economically, the new world of the European Union and global free trade has marginalized the products from the Alm economy. Big feedlots can certainly produce more concentrated amounts of beef more quickly than the laborious process of fattening cattle on mountain grasses. But is that what the world really needs?
In any case, some Alms have adapted by shifting their focus to recreation. In the Krippenstein Mountains of Upper Austria, the Gjaidalm has focused on offering wellness retreats, yoga workshops and foot massages, and there’s a petting zoo, with pygmy goats and pigs. But the pastures around the hut (first tended in the Bronze Age) only see a dozen cows per year, well below the official allotment. That means the grasses aren’t being grazed enough to maintain plant diversity.