ALPINE AGRICULTURE AND LIVING TRADITIONS
Stafelalp: Keeping the tradition alive
The Citizens’ Community of Zermatt has been committed to Alpine agriculture from the beginning. Matterhorn Group AG is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Citizens’ Community of Zermatt. As such, it is steeped in tradition.
“(…) A burgher can exercise his right to use the Alps in the area in which he owns Alpine pastureland. A burgher who does not own Alpine pastureland may be allocated a piece of pastureland that is least exhausted for use. The Citizens’ Council must ensure that the Alps are not exhausted.”
Extract from the Citizens’ Regulations of 1867 and the Supplement of 1914 on the use of Alpine pastures.
In former times, nearly all families in Zermatt owned a cow, which allowed them to supply their own milk and meat. Today, there are only three parties of Alpine herdsmen who keep cows year-round.
Dairy farming in Zermatt
The Alpine rights set forth by the Citizens’ Community of Zermatt originated in the Citizens’ Regulations of 1867–1914 and influence the pasturing of livestock in Zermatt to this day. Cows still spend summers on the lower Stafelalp. Unfortunately, the beginnings of the tradition of dairy farming at the foot of the Matterhorn are no longer known. No sources exist that document when the first stalls at the foot of the Matterhorn, 2,200 metres above sea level, were built. However, even in the absence of historical documents, the Stafelalp is a living testament to a long tradition of mountain agriculture in the Alps of Zermatt.
The Stafelalp through the ages
Dairy farming on the Stafelalp began in 1940, and was restructured and expanded in the 1970s. At that time, the most important modernizations included the use of electricity on the Alpine pastures, as well as the installation of sanitary facilities such as a shower and water toilet. A larger Chäskessi pot allowed 320 litres of Alpine milk to be made into cheese, representing a further improvement. In addition, the citizens’ community built community stalls for approximately 30 cows, and the strenuous task of milking was alleviated by milking machines in a new permanent milking stand adjacent to the cheese cellar. Finally, up to 2016, management on the Alps was reorganized. Several pastures were established near the dairy farm to give the cows freedom to leave their stalls and graze at night. The Alpine cooperative, newly founded in 2019, ensures the continuity of pasturing on the Stafelalp.
New Alpine cooperative initiated by the Citizens’ Community of Zermatt
The commitment of the Citizens’ Community of Zermatt to the new Alpine cooperative is an important contribution to preserving traditional mountain agriculture on the Stafelalp. The new Alpine cooperative, founded at the beginning of 2019, handles pasture management, Alpine personnel recruitment, and maintenance of the stalls and facilities on the Stafelalp. The production of traditional Alpine products such as cheese, dried meat and home-made sausages also falls under their purview.
The Alpine products produced on the Stafelalp feature in the culinary offer of the hotels and restaurants under the banner of Matterhorn Group AG, and represent the direct connection between tourism and mountain agriculture.
The Stafelalp is the only remaining mountain pasture for cows in Zermatt where cheese, and specifically Ziger whey cheese, is still produced.
This traditional craft is the highlight for visitors. The sampling of specialities from the Valais region in the rustic ambience of the Stafelalp is of course also part of the experience.
Moments of an Alpine summer
The work involved in dairy farming is varied and meaningful, but also demanding. In brief, it is a job for which you need to have a special calling. The interaction with the animals, physical labor and long days are the essence of Alpine dairies. Whoever struggles through its hardships will develop a love of the mountain pasture and return time and time again to enjoy the fruits of their labor during the day and peace and quiet in the evening. Alpine dairy farmers are not only physically and mentally fit, but also skilled.
Work for the summer mountain pastures on the Stafelalp begins in wintertime. During mid-May, as soon as the snow melts and the pastures are accessible again, Alpine operations begin. This includes preparing firewood for cheese production as well as checking and installing water lines and troughs for livestock.
While there is no Alpaufzug (communal ascent) to the Stafelalp, the individual groups of herdsmen always enjoy a jovial atmosphere as they drive their livestock together. The cows are evaluated with a discerning eye, and raclette and an information session for Alpine personnel are also part of the agenda.
During the Alpine season, the Stafelalp Alpine cooperative provides support for potential problems and organizes a festival for the Alpine herdsmen. The festival helps finance Alpine farming and facilitates interaction and bonding between guests and locals. It also provides the dairy farms on the Stafelalp an opportunity to showcase their craft as the living testament of a long tradition of mountain agriculture in the Alps of Zermatt.
The Alpine summer concludes with driving the livestock down the mountains (Entalpen). The indigenous cows are driven back to the village, and the cattle that was additionally purchased is transported back home in trailers. Later on in the year, when the winter blankets the Alps with white snow, Alpine cheese offers a wonderful reminder of the summer days spent on the Stafelalp.
Source: Die Berglandwirtschaft in Zermatt by Klaus Julen and Oswald Perren; available from the citizens’ community.