In this wonderful documentary you can experience how a Swiss family spends their summer on an alp (a high mountain pasture) to care for cows. Like many other Swiss, this is something I’ve dreamed of doing for a long time, so I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.
How to spend an Alpensommer
Every summer, the cows from Swiss alpine villages spend about three months on an alp so the farmers can make hay from the grass closer to their farm. Not every farmer’s family has resources to man an alp themselves, therefore often seasonal workers are hired for this job. Looking after an alp and its animals sounds idyllic, and sometimes is, but it’s mainly a very tough job. The days are long – 15 hours are the norm, the work is exhausting, the weather up in the mountains is unforgiving and the pay is small. Nevertheless, thousands of Swiss and foreigners take time off their regular work each year for three months to work on an alp and experience an Alpensommer (alpine summer).
The portrayed family
The documented alp in the Safien valley (Graubünden) is manned by a couple from the Engadin valley, both forestry engineers in their everday lives, their children who are 8, 6 and 3 years old and a helper. They look after the cows, milk them and for milk storage reasons turn the milk into cheese and butter which will be sold at the end of summer. As they’re looking after the cows of more than one farmer, they have to keep daily records about which cow gave how much milk so the revenue from the sold cheese and butter can be shared amongst the farmers accordingly. They also have a few pigs, chickens, a cat and a dog on the alp.
While the parents are busy from the wee hours in the morning until late at night, the kids are on their own for entertaining themselves. They’re always welcome to help their parents with looking after the animals and making cheese and butter, or they can play. There are, of course, not many toys on an alp, but their parents taught them about managing risks and decide themselves whether something is safe or not. It’s amazing to see the boys, aged three and six, chopping adult sized pieces of wood on their own with real axes and to play pretty risky games outside, and the eight year old looking after the cows and helping make cheese. With not many toys and no screens, the kids get bored often too and it’s up to them to invent a game or create their own toys.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie. I loved seeing how these people manage their daily work and life in their tiny universum that is an alp. As a mum of two kids who have so far spent their lives in Inner London and now in Zurich, restricted to their apartment and the not so green outside and with screens and lots of toys to distract them all day long, I loved watching how these three kids on the alp had to invent their own games, manage their boredom and how the parents enabled them to engage in risky activities and get involved in the parents’ work if they wanted. Lots of food for thought indeed.
Further information on seasonal alpine work
If you’re interested in a seasonal job on a Swiss alp or a shorter volunteering experience, there are various places to find work. You could either find a job in a Berghütte (a hut up in the mountains) where guests can eat and sleep (job openings for example on this website). If you’re interested in a seasonal job on an alp looking after cattle, you can try a website called zalp. And if your child is interested in a volunteering opportunity on a farm, in the lowlands or up in the mountains, the organisation Agriviva is here to help (for young people 14-25 years). And if you’re interested in experiencing an Alpaufzug or Alpabzug (alpine ascent and descent for the cattle), you can check for example this website for the dates and places for this year. And to learn more about the Swiss tradition called Landdienst, an agricultural service performed by the youth, read our post here.
You can watch the 1.5 hours long video for free on youtube. In the background you’ll hear the family speak Rumantsch (the fourth national Swiss language which is spoken in some alpine parts of the country), but it’s all translated into High German. There are English subtitles available (click the CC button in youtube).