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The alm summer in salzburg

What a feeling

Marianne and Georg Schmuck from St. Martin have spent their alm summers high up on the Loferer Alm with 45 cows and calves for over a quarter of a century. This year they will set off at the beginning of June once again to look after their cattle on the mountain pastures.

The majestic peaks of the Salzburger Saalachtal are still covered with the last of the snow but spring has long since arrived in the valley and everything is blossoming and sprouting. At the Müllergut in St. Martin the black and white cows are grazing around the farmhouse. I meet the senior farmers, Marianne and Georg Schmuck, in their small house right next to the idyllic farmhouse. They have already passed on their farm to one of their children but they still help out. In the cosy parlour they tell me about the 28 summers they have spent together on the alm. 

Preparing for the alm summer

“It won’t be long before we start to prepare for the next alm summer,” Georg Schmuck tells me and adds, “As soon as the mountain road to the alm is free of snow I drive up to chop wood. I store this against the wall on the sunny side of the hut so that it can dry out before we move up there because it is cold on the alm in the evening and even in the summer we fire up the stove.” The rustic hut is situated at 1500 m above sea level in the middle of the Almenwelt Lofer and is rented out to holiday guests in the winter. “Before we move there is quite a lot to do. We have to erect the fence again which we pull down in autumn; bring up the dairy equipment for the cows and carry out a general tidy up in and around the house,” says Marianne and her joyful anticipation is clear to see. 

The time finally arrives at the beginning of June. In the past the cows and calves were led up to the alpine pasture on foot, a journey of around 4 hours. These days they are brought up comfortably in a transporter. “This is much less laborious for us and for the cows. After such a journey, it used to take a few days before the cows produced enough milk again,” they explain. 45 cows and calves swap their stall for their picturesque summer home where they can enjoy the finest alpine herbs and the peace and quiet. The herdsmen pack the most important staple foods and belongings in the car and leave the farmhouse which has belonged to the family since 1658 and has operated as an organic farm since 1962. 

Spectacular sunrises

The couple describes the arrival on the pasture with a sparkle in their eyes, “We leave all our worries behind in the valley. Up on the alm we are freer, in our minds as well, and the time on the alm is wonderful, despite the work. And once the work on the alm is finished for the day, the work on the farm in the valley simply doesn’t stop. The ticking of the clock drives the people in the valley – at altitude the work is carried out according to the sun’s rhythms.” The working day of the herdsmen begins with the first rays of the sun at around 5 am. Marianne and Georg don’t need an alarm clock explaining, “Most days the jingling of the cowbells wakes us up. The cows come to the stall from the meadow by themselves. I greet them with “Cows, you are good!’, because we don’t need to walk a long way to collect them for milking, thanks to their independent arrival. However, before we go to the stall, we enjoy the sunrise.” I want to know if they haven’t seen enough after so many years and so many sunrises. Both of them shake their head, laughing, “No, every day is a fantastic new spectacle. We see the sun appear on the horizon right next to the Gaisberg in the city of Salzburg and the landscape is bathed in liquid gold. This is our cinema and we can enjoy this show every day as though we were in the best box seats. We start the day happily, beginning with the feeding and milking of the cows in the stall.”

Alm breakfast in the sun

“After milking and mucking out we have our breakfast. We take our time with this. In good weather we sit in front of the hut and enjoy homemade black bread with butter, jam and honey. This is the best time of the day and after our return to the valley we miss these moments most of all.” After breakfast, the fresh cow’s milk is brought down to the valley where it is pumped into the tank for the dairy. In high season they help with haymaking at home on the farm and tend to the flowers before they return to the alm after lunch. Milking begins again at 4 pm and after cleaning of the stall, the cattle are allowed to return to the pasture. Marianne and Georg walk up to the higher pasture at least twice a week to check on the young cattle. If one is missing they return again the next day to have another look. “Most of the time they turn up again but sometimes they can be hit by lightning. We lost 8 animals in a storm in 1990”, explains Georg Schmuck, whose concern for his animals shows in his face. 

Cosy end to a working day

Once all of the work is complete the farmers can enjoy absolute peace and quiet. They explain, “If we are finished before 7 pm then we are happy. We like to cook a typical alm supper ‘Moosbeer-Muas’. And if the reception allows, we watch the news to find out what is going on in Salzburg and the world. This doesn’t always work up on the mountain however. We enjoy the alm evening together.

Sometimes our children or grandchildren visit us. Georg’s brother Hans, who spends the summer in a neighbouring alm hut and has a wonderful voice, just like Georg, sometimes calls round. Then we sing traditional alm songs in the parlour. Bed calls at 9 pm at the latest as we have to get up early again the next day.”

Wild weather and traditions on the mountain

The sun doesn’t always shine on the mountain and the exposed position means that a summer storm can become unpleasant quickly. Marianne admits, “The wind can blow terribly here on the alm. And especially in the night, when the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls, I am really afraid. After a storm we have to check on the cows straightaway although most of them sense threatening bad weather and come to the stall of their own accord to shelter.” Every Saturday in good weather all of the dairymen and women on the alm meet up at the alm cross to pray the rosary and afterwards they all sit together on one of the 18 farmed pastures. “That is tradition for us.  Another tradition is the binding of bouquets of herbs on the day before the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Arnica, wormwood, yarrow, peppermint and phlomis are all included – the centre is adorned with alpine roses or red elder.  On the 15th August we take the bouquets to church for a blessing and the blessed herbs are then dried out well and divided into two parts. One part is used as incense on the smoke nights between Christmas and Epiphany and the other is mixed into the food for the cattle. The Feast of the Assumption used to be the holyday for the herdsmen. These days the alm feast day is celebrated around the time of the feast of St. James. This festival is celebrated with music on the Loferer Alm on the last Sunday in July. On that day we take a rest from all our obligations apart from the work in the stall.” 

Wild weather and traditions on the mountain

The sun doesn’t always shine on the mountain and the exposed position means that a summer storm can become unpleasant quickly. Marianne admits, “The wind can blow terribly here on the alm. And especially in the night, when the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls, I am really afraid. After a storm we have to check on the cows straightaway although most of them sense threatening bad weather and come to the stall of their own accord to shelter.” Every Saturday in good weather all of the dairymen and women on the alm meet up at the alm cross to pray the rosary and afterwards they all sit together on one of the 18 farmed pastures. “That is tradition for us.  Another tradition is the binding of bouquets of herbs on the day before the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Arnica, wormwood, yarrow, peppermint and phlomis are all included – the centre is adorned with alpine roses or red elder.  On the 15th August we take the bouquets to church for a blessing and the blessed herbs are then dried out well and divided into two parts. One part is used as incense on the smoke nights between Christmas and Epiphany and the other is mixed into the food for the cattle. The Feast of the Assumption used to be the holyday for the herdsmen. These days the alm feast day is celebrated around the time of the feast of St. James. This festival is celebrated with music on the Loferer Alm on the last Sunday in July. On that day we take a rest from all our obligations apart from the work in the stall.” 

Autumn departure from the alm

When thick wisps of fog hang in the valley and the alpine pasture begins to change colour from a lush green to brown, the cattle give the green light for the decampment. “Usually the time comes at the beginning of September. The cows on the pasture find less to eat and have to go further afield. Their loud mooing let us know that it is time for the departure from the alm. We also want to go home since we know that the valley pastures are still green and the cows won’t want for anything there. We always used to crown our animals with the traditional headdresses when the alm summer was successful and free of accidents. The magnificent crowns were fixed to a halter on the head of the animal. Colourful paper strips, sprigs of fir and stars of all colours made up the finery. The head cow would receive the most splendid headdress with chrysanthemums and red alpine roses. Two days before the homecoming the decorations would be tried on so that the cows could get used to them. The headdress would often end up quite tattered on the long way home“, they laugh and add, “We don’t crown our cows anymore because we transport the cattle back to the valley by road. Of course, we still enjoy the big homecoming parade and harvest festival in St. Martin as visitors.”

The alm summer keeps you young

Despite their high ages, Marianne and Georg still aren’t tired of spending their alm summer high above the Salzburger Saalachtal. “So long as our health allows, we will continue to go up to the alm in the coming years. The work is good for the mind – it keeps us fit and young. We take our duties seriously because we are responsible for valuable milk, which is delivered to the farmhouse in top condition and for our cows, who should return to the valley in autumn fit and well. The alm summer isn’t just a season – it is a feeling! You sense when it is high time to pack your things for the unforgettable months up above and the arrival on the alm is also an inner arrival.” 

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