15 June 2016

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A Dream Come True

Keeping the cows happy and making the best lattes on the planet

For 14 straight years, our Managing Director Florian Meister has been spending part of his summer running a cheese farm at 2,000 m in the Alps of South Tyrol on the Italian side, but not far from Innsbruck, Austria. Because he grew up in the Piedmont at the foot of the Alps, Florian has always been a mountain lover, one who skis off-piste and cross country, hikes and mountain bikes in his spare time. At 20, he spent a summer working at an Alpine cabin near Berchtesgaden: It was the Watzmannhaus, named for the nearby Watzmann, a mountain infamous for its deadly East Face and renowned in cult circles as the backdrop for a ‘70s German musical.

During his long career in investment banking, Florian always remained on the lookout for an opportunity to work in the mountains again. He hoped to manage an Alm, German for an Alpine farm and pastures that house and feed cattle from the valleys, many of which also have a rustic eatery for passing hikers and mountain bikers. When Florian finally left banking, he took a step closer to his dream by learning about the daily operation of an Alm as an assistant to two experienced German women during their first year running the Weitenbergalm. A few summers later, he joined them as a full-fledged partner, and before long, fate presented him with an opportunity: His partners had to bow out for a couple of years for personal reasons, and the Alm underwent a major expansion. Florian stepped in as the manager, and he now works with an alternating team of four to five people, including one of his original partners; her skills help the Alm maintain its high cheese-making standards, and she’s responsible for training new team members.

Members of the Weitenberg farmers’ association have entrusted their milk cows to the team for the summer on a “lease model” that is quite unique – the farmers are paid according to an agreed price and the quantity of milk the cows produce. Over time, the number of cows has increased from 25 to 45, which is both an expression of the rise in feed prices down in the valleys as well as the confidence the locals have in the team’s ability. The expansion of the herd was also made possible by the association’s investment in additional processing equipment, most importantly the purchase of a new 500l cheese making vessel to replacing a 300l unit.

This equipment assists the team members during the 90-100 day milking season when they produce about 3-4 metric tons of cheese, about a tenth of that weight in butter, a few hundred kilos of fresh cheese (like mozzarella) for immediate consumption and lots of great yogurt – oh, and what may be one of the greatest lattes on the planet thanks to the professional coffee machine in the restaurant area. As part of the arrangement with the farmer’s association, Florian is responsible for finding buyers for the products and for running the daytime gastronomy business for hikers and mountain bikers – the Alm lies on one of the more difficult but highly travelled paths across the Alps.

What Florian enjoys most about the Alm is that he and the team form such a tight-knit group. They practice an unusually non-hierarchical and communicative style that many locals struggle with. “Some of the farmers think we’re crazy,” Florian says. “As we get together each week to talk about team dynamics behind closed doors, they think we are celebrating some sect-like mass.” What even those sceptics recognise, however, is that the team hardly ever had to let go of one of its members, and that the product is just right: "Our cheese takes 4-5 weeks to mature, but starting with week 3 after opening we are overrun daily with questions when the sale begins."

Florian and the group also create a universe of its own, one where they control most of the in- and outputs. These include the weekly shopping trip to the valley when the Alm’s products are also taken to shops and clients, the feeding of the cows, the production of finished goods, the water coming from the Alm’s own spring, the electricity generated the Alm’s own hydro plant, the five pigs eating whey and leftovers from the restaurant, and the removal of non-recyclable waste on the next drive to the valley.

With an area of 700 hectares, the Alm offers ample space for far more than just the milk cows; up to 200 young cows and horses graze on the upper slopes, especially where the terrain is not suited for the heavier and mostly pregnant milk cow herd.

If you’d like to learn more, check out weitenberg-alm.com