Along the Alpine Trail …
High along the Weissenbach above Strobl, in the headwaters of the Traun River, the stone wall at pasture’s edge has been there so long it’s become part of the landscape, with swirled layers of moss and granite a testament to how Austrian mountain dwellers have sculpted the high country for centuries. We discovered the wall after visiting a mountain dairy in the Postalm Region. The high plateau is one the largest contiguous grazing zones in this part of the Alps. In the winter, the pastures are downhill and crosscountry ski trails. As part of the the special reporting project on sustainable mountain agriculture supported by the Earth Journalism Network and Internews, we’ve traveled across Austria’s mountains to speak with farmers, environmentalists and scientists about the importance of preserving these cultural and natural landscapes.
We also try to stop and let the landscapes touch us visually, understanding how the care by alpine farmers helps keep the land healthy, promoting biodiversity and soil stability in the face of ever-increasing severe rainstorms in the area. A few weeks ago, we tracked down Siegfried Ellmauer, formerly the offical Alm inspector of the Upper Austrian state government. For 12 years, he not only worked to sustain existing grazing allotments, but spearheaded a grassroots restoration project to revive about a dozen of the region’s highest Alms. We spent several hours interviewing Ellmauer at his mountain farm and Gasthaus above Spital am Pyhrn. In this video excerpt, he speaks about the quality of the produce from alpine agriculture, and about how there’s a need to maintain the open pastures for environmental, cultural and social regions. Politicians may pay lip service to the idea of supporting the small grazing operations, but reality looks different, as national policies seem to align more with the big-is-better theory of economics.
Many of the dairy products and meats like smoked hams and sausages are consumed right where they are made, by tourists and hungry hikers who venture into the mountains. Maintaining small operations like the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, with just a few dozen cows, is not easy in the age of globalization, but operating a cozy restaurant and deli counter is a way of spreading the word about the sustainable, local food they produce.
There also a strong cultural aspect to alm life. Ringing the cowbell above the table signifies that you’re buying the next round, which means the accordion player will certainly sing another song, Many of the lyrics of the ditties praise the natural virtues of the mountain landscapes — special rare flowers, crystalline rock, clean air and icy streams. When we visited the Herrnalm on the Dürrenstein Mountains in Lower Austria, we sat with this group of friends who had wandered to the Alm for an afternoon of social music and drinking locally made apple cider and wine.
The cowbells on the pastures offer a simple melody for passers-by, but they many different tones enable the herders to track individual animals through forest or patchy mountain fog.