Innsbruck - An eye on the sky
Up from your office chair and out into the fields! Some mountain farms in South Tyrol cannot manage their haying without the help of volunteers. What’s it like to exchange your keyboard for a rake? Gunnar Herbst, who heads the travel section of Lufthansa Magazin, wanted to find out.
An eye on the sky
When you're sitting in an office, your problems don't fall from the sky. They arrive by phone or e-mail, arise in editorial conferences or when the boss wants to have a word. It's very different in the mountains, where the rain falls in fat drops, wetting the fields. Like yesterday afternoon, when it thoroughly drenched the new-mown hay. "We'll see what the weather does today," says Reinhold Knapp, peering up into the blue sky dotted with white. He isn't one for small talk but he talks about the weather all the time. Why? Because it affects his work, his living, his life.
Reinhold Knapp is a mountain farmer. He and his mother, Herta, run Korbleggerhof farm near Muhlwald in the northeastern part of South Tyrol. Reinhold has learned to live with that capricious force the weather. "You have to take what comes and make the best of it," he says. Reinhold was hoping for rain not very long ago, so that the grass would grow. What he needs now, in late June, is sunshine. He has until October to fill his barns with hay so that the cows have something to eat in the winter. Little by little he mows the eight hectares of tall grass growing around the farm buildings and in the high pastures. He lets it dry in the sun, turns it over, fluffs it up, rakes it into rows and takes it into the barn. Ideally, that is. But ideal conditions are rare in the Alps.
Hard work, sweet rest: Reinhold Knapp cuts the grass with a sickle bar mower while his helper regains his strength on a soft bed of hay
If it rains, Reinhold has to start all over again from scratch. His family comes to help him bring in the hay: his brother Albert, his uncles Erich and Richard, Richard's wife, Antonia. But since more people are needed, the South Tyrolean volunteer association VFA arranges extra help for Korbleggerhof at haying time.
In the office, happiness has no sound, no taste, no smell. It's different in the mountains, where happiness comes to your ears as birdsong and the rushing of a stream down in the valley. It tastes like fresh spring water and it smells of hay. For three days I exchanged city life for the mountains, my office for an Alpine farm and my keyboard for a rake. In return, I got food, lodging - and a real chance to unwind.
I usually spend the entire day at my computer, making calls, writing e-mails "often simultaneously" in short: constantly fighting to meet deadlines and stick to schedules. Now I find myself in the middle of a large meadow trying to be a mountain farmer just like Karl-Heinz Bier, a police commissioner from Trier, and Gisela Keller, a social counselor from Frankfurt.
Real rural experience: City boy Gunnar Herbst helps mountain farmer Richard Knapp make hay
Some parts of the pasture are so steep that I have trouble keeping my balance. Using a pitchfork, I turn and spread out the sundried grass that Reinhold cut with a hand mower the day before. I work my way upward and forward, square meter for square meter, from right to left. Lift, turn, drop, as evenly as possible. I think about nothing. Doing physical work, my head is free. At last!
Every now and again I stop and lift my face toward the sun. I gaze out over the giant, boulder-like mountains, where the last vestiges of snow still glint at their peaks, close my eyes and breathe deeply. Hay! I cannot imagine a more delightful scent. When the sun stands straight above us, we return to the farmhouse for lunch. Gina, the dog, barks as we approach and five chickens run across the grass like a bevy of teenagers. Defying the laws of gravity, the 200-year-old farm- house and silo cling to the mountainside 1,600 meters up, surrounded by meadows and woods. It's a world of its own. Idyllic.
Surrounded by cloud: Korbleggerhof farm perches on a hillside 1600 meters above the valley
But Reinhold and Herta have to work very hard to earn a living from their eight milking cows, which give up to 100 liters of milk a day. The Knapps are paID 40 cents for each liter. In the summer, they get up at six and easily work a 15-hour day: milking and feeding the cows, mucking out the barn and making hay. "There's always something to do on a farm," says Reinhold. Physical work has bent his back, scored his hands and strengthened his muscles. It wouldn't be easy to explain to Reinhold why people work out in a gym.
Well-kept cows: Reinhold Knapp milks them morning and night. In the summer he takes his herd up to the alpine meadows to graze
Herta serves the midday meal in the kitchen: Flat dumplings with potatoes and cabbage, accompanied by water and elderberry juice.
A happy life for livestock: Herta Knapp feeds the free-ranging chickens in front of the barn
Most of the food comes straight from the garden. This morning, Herta baked 60 loaves of bread, enough for the following month. "You have to be content with what you've got," she says with a smile. A braID of hair frames her head and her movements are slow and deliberate. Some would say that Herta doesn't have much. Her husband died while haying five years ago.
He went over a cliff in his three-wheeled Piaggio truck. Herta and Reinhold have had to manage alone since then; Reinhold never married. Herta has never taken a vacation and the farthest she ever traveled was to visit her sister in Zillertal. But you could also say that Herta has a lot. "I love nature and the peace and quiet up here," she says. And she's fond of farming. "There's nothing I would rather do. Even if things aren't always easy."
After taking his last bite, Reinhold jumps up and goes back to the meadow. Thunder rolls and lightning flashes in the distance. Dark clouds hover over the mountaintops. Everything has to go fast now, and everyone pitches in, even Herta. We rake the hay into rows, and Erich and Richard pick it up with their trucks. I'm sweating and my heart is pounding in my throat, but I wouldn't change places with anyone in the world. We get the hay by early evening. The thunderstorm arrives a couple of hours later and the rain begins to fall. "Today was a good day," Herta says at supper. We don't talk a lot. The work has wearied us to the bone, but it feels good to have achieved something. I sleep dreamlessly until the crowing of a rooster awakens me. This morning I help Reinhold in the barn, wash milk cans, give the cows fresh grass and hay, and pull some weeds. Out in the meadow, I turn the hay.
Nothing distracts me. Perhaps that's what makes this work so agreeable: I can move at my own pace, without pressures and deadlines, and concentrate on one task at a time. We had wanted to bring in the hay in the afternoon, but the truck is losing oil so Karl-Heinz and Reinhold first have to repair the hose.
As they finish, it begins to rain. "All that work this morning was for nothing," Reinhold says. "You have to be able to accept things like that." We won't go out into the fields again until the hay is dry.
Sitting in an office, people dream about money, promotion, building a career and getting a raise. It's different in the mountains, where dreams remain modest.
What's your dream, Reinhold? Reinhold is silent. "I've never really thought about it," he says in the end. "Perhaps getting the hay in by July rather than October."
On the morning of my departure my arms ache, my right shoulder hurts and my hands are full of blisters - good souvenirs, I think, ones I could never buy. I feel refreshed, strong, full of energy. The world is at peace, the birds are singing and the sun is out. It's a perfect day for making hay. I put on my watch and it clasps my wrist like a handcuff. I haven't read an e-mail, made a phone call, used the Internet or had an appointment for three days. And I've missed none of it.
Not quite like lifting weights: Author Gunnar Herbst contemplates moving the heavy milk can
Volunteer farm work in South Tyrol:
The Verein Freiwillige Arbeitseinsätze (VFA) association places volunteer workers with mountain farms that, due to their location and the social situation of their owners (small families, health conditions), are unable to manage without outside help. Volunteers work for a week to three months in exchange for food and lodging. They are covered by liability and accident insurance but must be in good physical condition. Travel expenses to the farm and back are the only costs incurred.
Verein Freiwillige Arbeitseinsätze, Kanonikus-Michael-Gamper-Straße 5, Bozen, Tel. +39-0471/99 93 09. www.bergbauernhilfe.it (German and Italian)
Photos: Samuel Zuder (7)