The Herens Bells

This summer was full of incredible experience, and most of those came from the two weeks I spent accompanying a study abroad trip to France and Switzerland with Dr. Tim Woods. One experience, in particular, pulled together a number of thoughts and sentiments I’ve been grappling with over the past few months, and I’ve done my best to put it into words in this post.

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With typical francophone somberness, Mr. Berguerand greeted us outside the tiny town of Verbier, Switzerland, and bid our bus follow him up to the summer pastures. Climbing to nearly 14,000 feet, we arrived at the fields that for generations have been home to Herens cattle and the farmers that tend them. Our students ambled among the gentle cows as they nuzzled our hands for a scratch. Each animal had a large, handcrafted bell around her neck which rang constantly and in varied tones as they grazed on verdant grass and tiny wildflowers. My words cannot do that music justice (please see this video, and turn your sound on).

The herdsmen stood watch, alternately leaning on their staffs or leaping into action to corral an errant heifer. Shirts tucked into blue jeans and faces shaded by well-worn caps, they could have been any one of my neighbors from back home. An old border collie looked on benevolently. Their work was timeless and endless. We were floating off the edge of the world, carried by the song of bells and bellows of cows.

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Savior Faire and the Bon Vivant

They still milk the Herens, though it was unclear how robust milk sales are. Our translator explained that the trend in Swiss dairy, as everywhere, is for fewer, larger operations concentrated in the low lands that emphasize export and homogenized product. The Herens cattle are now kept mostly for sport and spring festivals. They’re known as ‘fighting’ cows, but its better described as mildly strenuous wrestling. Heifers vie for dominance in the spring when they’re set out to fresh pasture, and a queen is crowned. They drape her with flowers and parade her through town with children riding on her back.

Lunch was a simple picnic arrayed on a few flat stones above the milking barn: cured meats, rye bread, Raclette cheese, tiny cornichons and pickled onions. Sharing a bottle of red wine we spoke together of things both idle and profound. With my very broken French, hand gestures, and the occasional help of our translator we learned there is no Swiss equivalent for “Bless her heart,” nor English equivalent of  ‘Bon Vivant’ (someone who is a joyful mess; good at living, bad at life). We also learned that Mr. Berguerand has four children, but they work in banking and have no plans to return to the mountains or the heard. Looking down on the valley, our young translator observed that in his lifetime the village has expanded by at least a third, primarily for vacation homes for the global elite. James Blunt has a place there. “It’s getting harder for the local people to stay,” he stated simply.

Mr. Berguerand
Mr. Berguerand and his dog

Willingness to pay

As our bus descended back to town, one of the students speculated that you could accurately asses a customers willingness to pay to preserve the Herens breed and thus determine both the price of cheese and the future of the breed. While I appreciated their enthusiasm for the tools of their discipline, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that in our cynical era we know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In a food system that can change with a trending hashtag, should we trust the abstract ‘consumer’ with determining our agricultural and cultural legacy? The Mayans built monuments to corn; will future generations will uncover digital archives of Unicorn Frappuccinos?

I won’t get into the heartbreak of the dairy crisis currently facing farm families in Kentucky and across the United States. The local and national media have done a better job telling their story than I could. It’s enough to say that during our visit to the mountain I couldn’t stop thinking about the shared life and challenges faced by dairy families around the world.  While the Swiss nostalgia for their agrarian past keeps our Herens herdsman friends afloat, who can say how long that will last. There are currently fewer than 12,000 Herens cattle alive on this earth, and those numbers continue to drop. Left to the unbridled market forces, it may come to pass that the mountains stand silent, the song of bells having passed out of memory.

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And yet they ring

Our visits during the trip alternated between massive multi-national operations striving for large scale production to meet globally homogenous standards, and petit artisanal enterprises highly attended to the distinct characteristics of each plot of soil and the traditions of their community.  The question at hand is whether these two systems can co-exist. In bleaker moments I heard our French hosts talk of downsizing their operations or decreased sales in artisan bread. In short, I worry that the full realization of global food system leaves no room for the small, the slow, the gentle.

Thankfully, those moments pass. Through the stories from our new French and Swiss friends I am reassured that they can and will continue to thrive through collaboration and the continued support (both through both patronage and policy) from their communities. Back home I’m heartened by the new salad bar and whole animal program our dining program is rolling out this fall (watch for big news announcement soon!). However, a brighter tomorrow is never promised today, and we must all continue to advocate for and tell the stories of the small farmers whose timeless work sustains us all.

September 1, 2018