Agritourism in Switzerland: Reviving Family Farms Through Rural Tourism

In Switzerland’s burgeoning agritourism industry, farmers-turned-entrepreneurs are increasing the profitability of local food production and ensuring that family farms remain a celebrated, vital part of Swiss society.

| March/April 2012

Cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region. Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. But the contest isn’t just about pretty faces—honorable mentions go to cows with the best udders and highest milk production.

On this Tuesday afternoon, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. “Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” tour guide Antonia Brown Ulli tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a traditional dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.

I’m comforted to see these age-old cow herding traditions still being heartily celebrated. As in most developed nations, family farms in Switzerland have been struggling over the past few decades—one-third fewer farms exist in Switzerland today than in 1990. It’s difficult to make a living as a farmer, and many young people are swapping rural life for urban careers. However, renewed interest in eating local foods—especially those produced organically (called “Bio” in Switzerland)—is starting to revive small family farms, which can supply fresh, in-season food to cities via farmer’s markets.

A new local food-inspired idea that’s gaining traction in Switzerland (as well as here at home) is “agritourism,” a growing industry in which visitors spend time at a farm, observing farmers and food producers in action and sometimes helping with farm work. This infusion of tourist money and enthusiasm can energize small farms—especially those near breathtaking locations such as the Swiss Alps, where travelers flock anyway.

“Agritourism gives farmers a leg to stand on,” says Barbara Thörnblad Gross, a professor at Inforama, a 150-year-old Swiss agriculture school. “To survive, 40 percent of farmers augment their farm income with other jobs.” Many student farmers are learning how to operate rural bed-and-breakfasts and farm restaurants, or to provide milk or honey spa treatments. And agritourism in Switzerland doesn’t just benefit farmers. It reconnects visitors with their food sources, encouraging local eating and shopping. When you sip just-pressed apple juice from a Swiss orchard, you enjoy flavors that juice processed in a factory and shipped from afar simply can’t mimic. Lend a hand milking goats, and you gain a whole new appreciation for the work and artistry that goes into producing cheese.

Local Food: From Pasture to Plate

Diners wait weeks for a dinner reservation at the Château de Villa, a 16th-century castle with a restaurant and wine cellar in Switzerland’s French-speaking Valais region. What lures them—and me—is the region’s famous raclette cheese—a cheese made from the raw milk of cows grazed in alpine meadows within yodeling distance of the Matterhorn.

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