The Challenges and Charms of a Life Making Cheese in the Mountains

18 Sep 2011 | English

“It’s important to talk about the real protagonists of this event, the farmers, herders and cheesemakers, and their future,” began Mauro Pizzato of Slow Food Italy, introducing a Milk Workshop held on Sunday September 17, the third day of Cheese 2011.

Inevitably talking about the future means talking about the young people who are turning their back on urban temptations and choosing a hard but rewarding life on a farm, herding animals in the mountains or making cheese in a dairy. In Europe in general, and particularly in Italy, farmers are an aging population, with barely 3 percent of Italian farms run by people under 35.

The discussion focused on herders who make cheese, with a panel made up of two young cheesemakers, Denis Fourcade from the French Pyrenees and Alessandro Boasso from Piedmont, Italy; Marzia Verona, a writer who is working on a new book based on interviews with young herders; and Giorgio Ferrero, the agriculture spokesman for the Democratic Party in Piedmont. Rachele Ellena, a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, presented some initial results from her research into young farmers. From the audience, producers of Romano Conciato, mozzarella and Monte Veronese also added their voices to the debate, which explored some of the main difficulties for young people starting out herding animals and making cheese, often in marginal environments like the mountains, as well as the rewards and satisfactions.

Apart from the hard work required, a number of other factors make this life difficult for young people. Chief among them are the bureaucratic obstacles to running a small cheesemaking business. “Bureaucracy is killing the countryside,” said Alessandro Boasso, who started a small goat farm with his wife in 2007. Farms are forced to comply with hygiene regulations designed for big companies that don’t take into account the specific nature of the production. “When we set up our dairy, we were compared to one that produces 1,000 times as much,” said Boasso.

Then there are the funding issues. Boasso was lucky that his parents believed in the imitative and helped him financially, but as Giorgio Ferrero explained, often the relationship between high investment and low income is insurmountable for young people wanting to go into farming. “Income is not the first thing that brings young people to a farm, but it’s fundamental to being able to continue,” he said. And European Union agricultural policy has not helped small family farms, he continued. Subsidies mostly go to large-scale, industrial, intensive farms, and despite policy changes, he said, “it’s always the same ones who get the big subsidies, while those in difficulty stay in difficulty.”

There is also tough competition with big companies for fertile land, said Pizzato, while many farmers whose farms are not profitable are tempted to sell their land to developers, contributing to the “cementification” of the countryside. Another challenge is a lack of training and education options for young people, which is especially hard if they don’t have a family background in farming.

So with all these challenges, why would anyone want to go into this business? When Rachele Ellena asked 60 young farmers that question, almost all had the same reply: “Passion.” Without an intense love for the job, the hard work becomes unbearable. Marzia Verona talked about the immense passion many of the young people have for their animals. They know the names and stories of each member of their flock or herd.

Another rewarding aspect is the deep connection they form with other people who share the same life, sometimes family members or friends of the family, or another herder met during the seasonal migration of the livestock. Knowledge is passed down through the generations, as Denis Fourcade explained. “When I was 13 I started working with a 70-year-old farmer, who taught me everything. We have to pass on know-how from one generation to another.” And of course the young people are often continuing the tradition of their parents or grandparents. Herding is in their blood.

As Verona clicked through a slideshow of photos of young farmers—walking through the mountains, hugging their animals, making cheese, participating in milking competitions—she talked about something else that appeals to many: the solitude and beauty of mountain life, disconnected from the world. But, she said, many of them also appreciate the networking power of Facebook. “They can’t really travel as they’re tied to their animals, but in the evening they can upload photos and see others and chat about their goats and sheep.”

In the end, she said, the future of cheesemaking is in their hands.

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