Hunting goats. Farming work placement on an alp in Ticino

By Linus Entringer, September 2014

A farming work placement can take many different forms – from working on a large Demeter farm with luscious land under cultivation to the sparse, herby aromatic mountain world of an alp – everything is possible. Linus Entringer decided in favour of the latter: he milked cows and goats which first had to be found and made cheese which had to be transported down into the valley by helicopter. A report from a completely different world.

I was excited. The five hours by car from Lake Constance to Sonogno at the end of the Verzasca valley had been exhausting. Now I stood in front of La Penagia, the farm on which my farming work placement was to begin. It was a small farm, the last inhabited building in this valley. The walls were of smooth concrete, partly clad in wood. Next to the farmhouse there was an overgrown caravan and in the background the Verzasca river could be heard rushing by.

The farmer, Damiano Matasci, came out of the byre, a 52-year-old native of Ticino of medium height who had the marks of hard farming work on him. His wife Nadia also joined us. Both of them welcomed me and my parents and asked us into the house for the evening meal. I was introduced to the other pupil on work placement, Amos.

An alarm clock rings. It is 4.52 in the morning.

Half asleep I try to remember where I am and whose alarm clock is ringing. I am lying on a hard bed in a white tiled room which is filled with so much clutter that there is only just enough room for the two beds for Amos and myself. Our room is directly next to the byre and is buzzing with flies which keep us awake at night. Under these circumstances I do not feel particularly well and wonder how I got here. It was about seven months ago, I was looking in the files of our school for a farming work placement and La Penagia farm in the Italian part of Switzerland came up. I knew from photos that this region is very beautiful and had indeed celebrated my third birthday there. Amos’ alarm clock keeps ringing. I jump out of bed, dress and open the door. In the byre Damiano immediately hands me a 20-litre bucket with fresh cow’s milk. After the cows have been milked and the milking machine cleaned, we go into the kitchen for our breakfast. It becomes my favourite meal over the next few weeks, consisting of milk, cocoa powder, bread, butter and cheese.

When breakfast is finished, we drive fifteen minutes in an old, ramshackle Subaru through wild countryside up the valley to milk the goats. The herd of goats consists of 54 animals but only 35 of them are milked. I nab a goat sit down behind it and try in vain to milk it. Only after a detailed explanation from Amos do I manage to squeeze a weak jet from the udder of the poor animal. An eternity later and with aching arms I have succeeded in extracting two litres from this goat. In the meantime Amos and Damiano have milked all the other goats. We take all the milk to the local cheese dairy and make hay until lunchtime. After a short break we return to the haymaking. All the animals are milked again in the evening.

That was the pattern for the next two weeks. I slept every free minute and in the evening I fell exhausted into bed. After two weeks on the farm we began the preparations for the alp which Damiano had rented for the last three years and on which he spends the summer with his animals. The alp is two hours by car and then another one-and-a-half hours on foot from the farm. We embarked on the journey to the Vergeletto valley with three livestock trucks and the car full of supplies.

The animals rushed off, happy to be freed from the livestock truck and knowing the magnificent grazing which awaited them for the whole of the summer on the alp. It did not take long before all the goats had disappeared and the cows, too, trotted along behind them. It was clear, on the other hand, that the young calves were unfamiliar with this valley and they could only be persuaded with difficulty to follow the narrow mountain path. With all of us pushing and shoving we managed gradually to coax them up metre by metre. Damiano’s son Attilio was also there and helped us. Three hours later we reached the Alpe di Porcaresc completely exhausted. I noted in my diary that this climb had been “the hardest 700 metre climb in my life”.

After we had recovered a little from our exhaustion, we started to prepare the alp. It lies in a basin at 1,800 metres. It consists of seven stone huts of which four are stables, two are huts for storing wood and supplies, plus a large stone hut with a cheese dairy, sleeping quarters and a cellar for storing the cheese. The pasturage goes in steps to a height of 2,300 metres. A helicopter arrived a few days later to bring us more supplies and straw for the stables. The day on the alp began at four in the morning, before sunrise. I had meanwhile become used to getting up so early and the short sleep but I had no idea then how it would shape me for the rest of my life. Every morning we saddled two donkeys with the milk churns and trekked to the cows on the pasture. In early June it was still very cold at 1,800 metres and there were even still patches of snow. On one occasion one of the donkeys slipped and fell into the valley with the heavy milk churns – fortunately without being fatally injured.

I take my pail and in the darkness look for a cow to milk.

It is cold, I kneel in the grass which is warm from where the cow has been lying and huddle close up to it. I start to massage its udder. I notice how it gradually fills and start with fast, alternating hand movements to milk a thick stream of milk into the pail. With my head leaning against the stomach of the cow, I doze for a few minutes as I milk.

After two weeks in the seclusion of the alp I became one with this life. I could no longer imagine anything else. In Porcaresc the animals became my friends, even if I had to fetch the goats each morning from the mountain tops. When the cows and goats had been milked, we started on the cheese making. Every day at lunchtime I went a little way up the mountain to wash in a cold mountain lake. All the animals had to be milked again in the evening. Mostly there were three of us on the alp. We not only had to do the milking and make cheese, but also had to chop wood, clean the stables, wash our clothes, cook our meals and repair the odd thing that needed it. Often we were busy until nine or ten at night.

Each day on the alp brought a new experience. On some days we spent many hours catching all the goats. Sometimes we were surprised by a thunderstorm and had to stay on the mountain for several hours. In return all our efforts were rewarded with wonderful views from the high mountain tops. We were far removed from everything and only the radio, which always played the same songs, kept us in touch with what was happening in the world. On the last day of my seven-week work placement I was allowed to do something special.

I am rather excited – Damiano has just said that today I am allowed to make the cheese completely on my own.

In front of me a copper kettle hangs over the fire with 240 litres of milk in it. I know the procedure off by heart from watching. I stir the rennet into the heated milk and let it do its work. After breakfast I break up the concentrated bits of fat and keep stirring them over the fire. At the right temperature I skim off the whey. With a cloth I reach into the hot liquid and fish out the bits of cheese … I have done well with cheese no. 32.

My time on the Alpe di Porcaresc made me very happy, but it took me a long time to readjust to normal life.

About the author: Linus Entringer attends class 11 at the Free Waldorf School in Überlingen.