When in July and August it is time to mow the Alpine pastures, many farmers’ families in Tirol prepare themselves for the busiest weeks of the year. Some of them rely increasingly on volunteers to help them. Michael Schüller is one of these volunteers. He quit his job as a controller to help the mountain farmers with the hay harvest – and to rearrange his own life.
The way he handles things in the kitchen seems so experienced – as if it was his own kitchen. Michael Schüller is cooking pasta, frying “Speck” and washing the salad leaves, although he has just arrived after a long car ride from Germany, where he had been visiting a friend for the weekend. In the meantime, Josef Plangger is setting the table. “I’m not a very good housewife,” he apologises. A little smile flashes over his suntanned face. He is looking forward to lunch.
Mountain farmer Josef is very lucky to have found Michael from Augsburg, Germany. 26 years young, strong and hard-working. They have only known each other for two weeks and are already well attuned to each other. Just like every year, Josef was looking for a volunteer or a couple to help him with the hay harvest on his farm high above the village of Nauders by the Reschenpass for two or even three weeks during the summer. However, Michael was determined to stay all of July and August as well. “Two months. That’s the first time ever someone wants to stay for two whole months,” Josef adds.
Volunteers like Michael are becoming increasingly important for mountain farmers in Tirol and other Alpine regions. In some cases, they have become indispensable, also in order to be able to preserve the cultural landscape. The hay harvest along the steep mountain hills is often still mainly done by hand, and the number of helping hands in farmers’ families has decreased over the years.
Seventeen hectares of pastor – that’s the equivalent of 24 football fields – belong to the Stableshof. Being situated at 1,800 metres above sea level, the Stableshof belongs to the highest situated mountain farms in Austria. However, the pastures are mainly on the steep hills and often have to be cut by hand. “At the beginning I asked myself how I would ever manage to do that,” Michael admits.
Straight after washing up the dishes from lunch, Josef and Michael get back to work outside on the field. Josef is operating the mowing machine, which he moves along the hill with its broad spike-tooth rollers. Michael is holding the hay fork in his hand; he aerates the grass that has been freshly cut by the machine to allow more air to it. This way it will dry within just a couple of days and can then – after having been flipped over one more time – be put away in the hay barn. The most important thing is that this is all done before the next rain arrives. This hay that smells like herbs and is interspersed with an uncountable number of Alpine flowers is for Josef’s 20 cows, which are on different Alpine pastures at the moment. The hay serves as fodder for the cattle during the winter.
Michael found the job at the Stableshof through a project called “Volunteers on Farms” (“Freiwillig am Bauernhof”) – a volunteer project association run by the company Maschinenring and the Chamber of Agriculture. The 26-year-old is one of the nearly 400 volunteers who have been paired up with more than 130 different businesses in North and South Tirol by the association in summer 2019. The volunteers receive free board and lodging. There are further volunteers from other organisations, for example from the Austrian Alpine Club. According to Martin Egger from the company Machinenring the number of volunteers and placements has increased strongly over the last years. “2019 we have had 50 more registrations compared to the same time period last year,” he explains. Many people from all different backgrounds are interested in this work especially on small farms in the Alpine region. Martin Egger thinks that many have the “need to do something meaningful and grounded”.
While turning the hay, Michael often has to do the same movements over and over again for hours. This may seem monotonous but opens the mind. “While you are doing this work, many topics pop up in your head,” Michael explains while balancing the hay on his hay fork. An important topic: his future career path. Michael, who studied business, quit his unlimited contract as a controller in a large IT company before taking a time-out on the farm. “A step which required a lot of courage,” he explains. “I have already received new job offers, but I did not want to make a decision before spending some time up here,” Michael adds. It is difficult to imagine Michael – now wearing a straw hat and hiking boots – in a suit and tie.
It was important to him to get away from his desk for some time and to do something manually. Michael tells us that both of his parents had grown up on a farm. “I want to know how our ancestors used to work,” he says. “Due to the fact that most of our farms are worked on with machines, it is difficult to imagine what it used to be like.” One thing you notice straight away on a mountain farm, according to Michael, is the amount of work behind producing a piece of meat or cheese. “Our society has to value this a lot more.”
Josef – or Sepp as the volunteer from Bavaria calls him – has been used to this work since his childhood. The 56-year-old grew up on this 400-year-old farm. To be precise, in his family’s farmhouse situated a couple of meters up the hill, where a family from Berlin is spending their two-week holiday at the moment. Josef enjoys having children around on the farm. He usually only sees his own children at the weekends; Josef and his wife have been living apart for some years now. His 14-year-old son Bernhard is here at the moment and is helping him with the hay. The two older sisters are finishing their education. One of them wants to become a hairdresser, the other one wants to become an agricultural skilled worker. So maybe there is a ray of hope that she might take over the farm one day? Josef sways his head from one side to the other. “She takes great relish in doing farm work. However, nowadays it is difficult to find a partner who wants to do all of this.” Josef knows what he is talking about.
When he says “all of this”, he particularly means all the work. On some days, Michael and Josef spend 13 hours with haymaking. During labour peak between the end of June and the beginning of August, relatives sometimes come and help. In September they then have to focus on a second mountain pasture further down. Although there is a lot of work, Josef sometimes does not know how to make ends meet. As a mountain farmer, he receives subsidies from the EU and the provincial government. However, it is not much. “Without these subsidies I would have to pack up straight away,” he says. Therefore, he is all the more grateful for the additional help from volunteers like Michael. Giving up is one thing Josef has never thought about though. When at his wit’s end, his faith gives him strength.
It takes the men two days to finish the first pasture, then the hay is already dry because they were lucky and it did not rain. While Michael is pulling the hay down the hill with his large rake and Josef is getting the tractor to collect the hay, four small children are running about on the meadows and are laughing and rolling themselves down the hill. They are the children from the guests from Berlin – they have just come back from an excursion. Their parents come over as well; without hesitating they grab two rakes and help with the hay. They already did this on the first day they arrived, the mother Juliane Grebin tells us. “When we saw the two men on the large pasture, we just thought: They could need some help.”
In the evening, Josef and Michael sink into the chairs in the kitchen. They managed to finish one pasture today, but there are many more to cut. “I want to preserve what I took over from my ancestors,” Josef explains. “I owe it to them. And to my children.”
Photo Credits: Sebastian Höhn