This summer, we decided to join the Adopt-an-Alp program and to commit to purchasing cheese from a small family-run operation on Ruosalp in northwestern Switzerland. Ruosalp is remote and breathtakingly beautiful.
The cantons (states) of Uri and Schwyz, where the Herger family lives and works, are two of the original three cantons that established the nation of Switzerland in 1291. The Hergers and their ancestors have been farming for generations, and Max is part of the third generation to spend summers with a herd on Ruosalp, carrying on the Swiss tradition of transhumance.
Transhumance and Tradition
For thousands (and we mean THOUSANDS – since at least the Bronze Age!) of years, people have been moving herds of livestock between Alpine valleys in the winter and lush mountain meadows in the summer. This allows pastures in the valley to regenerate and gives animals access to a tremendous diversity of highly nutritious Alpine plants. During these summers, farm families live on the mountain with their herds and make cheese, which begins to mature in sheds on the mountain.
The Hergers begin the transhumance process in late spring, when they move their cows into trailers to drive about 25 miles to the base of Ruosalp’s mountain road.
After that, the herd begins the long walk to summer pastures:
And then it’s time for months of grazing on what, for cows, is basically a candy store, with breathtaking views.
Labor of Love
While all of this looks like paradise to us, the summer on Ruosalp isn’t all peace and gazing off into the mountains. The Hergers have to construct fences, move hay, help cows give birth, and provide veterinary care for their 16 cows, 20 goats, and a herd of 250 bulls that Max manages for another operation.
All this manual labor is part of a way of life that the Swiss still cherish, and it’s a privilege for us to work with a family that clearly values the land, tradition and animal welfare. This is about as far from “factory farming” as you can get.
As summer ends and the herds return to the valley, the year’s transhumance ends in a festival of color and joyful noise. Cows wear elaborate floral headgear, bells ring, Alpers don traditional costumes, and the parade begins. Here’s what it looks like at Alp Abzug this year.
This was a big and busy weekend for Alp folks and their herds. It looked like this left and right in Switzerland. Humans and their herds returning down to the valley. Next chapter.
Posted by Adopt-an-Alp on Sunday, September 30, 2018
For milennia, the Swiss have relied on Alpage cheesemakers and transhumance to maintain a rural way of life, a cultural identity, and a critical part of the Swiss economy. This is a tradition worth preserving – it’s this kind of thing that makes food – and life – so interesting! We’re going to try to recreate our own little parade on October 6 and 7 with our cow, Millie, and with the help of young friends who can color flower crowns and garlands for their own cows. And we’ll open our first wheels of the Hergers’ Alpkäse to taste and celebrate! Please join us!