There’s a scent of fresh hay in the air. We are driving up the windy street from Meran/Merano to the Passeiertal valley. It seems like all the farmers are taking their tractors out for a spin today, climbing up the steep slopes to mow the tall grass. The weather has finally turned good, and it’s mowing time. Once we arrive at the Niedersteinhof farm in San Leonardo/St. Leonhard, we find farmer Walter Moosmair out on a meadow next to his barn – mowing, of course. “I’ll be right there,” he calls out, doing a few more turns with his sleek mower. Walter is an innovative organic mountain farmer that likes to do things his way. But when it comes to mowing time, even Walter has to adhere to standard weather patterns.
“The hay growing down by our farmhouse is just ordinary hay,” explains Walter’s wife Caroline. “Our real asset is our mountain hay. It’s the only certified organic mountain hay in South Tyrol and grows at an altitude of 2,000 metres.” What difference does that make? Walter’s mountain hay contains over 85 different kinds of grasses, herbs and flowers. It is mowed with an electric mower to minimize pollution. (see video). The fragrant hay is stored in a well-aired, dark barn. “The fresh hay is almost like lettuce. It’s a beautiful green, and you can see the individual leaves and flowers. The smell is amazing,” Walter cheerfully explains as he stands there in his lederhosen and typical South Tyrolean blue apron.
Make hay while the sun shines
“Want to see my showroom?” Walter asks with an impish smile on his face. What used to be a chicken coop is now a fancy little showroom displaying a fine selection of luxury hay products. The only thing that gives away the room’s previous designation is a little hatch in the corner where the chicken ladder used to be. As soon as Walter opens the door to the showroom, we are surrounded by the enticingly sweet smell of hay. A beautiful antique bed complete with a healthy hay mattress is set up in the corner. Hay pillows are on display on a cupboard. The room is lit by a classy hay lamp making the glittery Swarovksi crystals on the hay wallpaper sparkle even more.
“Let’s face it. Nobody needs hay to survive,” says Walter. Nonetheless, there’s clearly a run on it. “Selling hay isn’t going to turn me into a millionaire, but you've got to make hay while the sun shines. Our farm is built on multiple legs. We rent out apartments, we produce milk, and we grow hay. I call it the ‘spider principle’: Even if you lose a leg, you’ll still survive,” says the haymaker.
The hay spa niche
The Niedersteinhof farm has been selling mountain hay since 2004. Back in the day, the Farmers' Association of South Tyrol launched a project to supply local hotels with mountain hay for their hay bath treatments, which were just becoming popular. Unfortunately, this didn’t exactly bring about a “heyday” for farmers. Profits were disappointingly low. When Walter was asked in 2009 if he wanted to continue on his own, he worked up his courage and assumed the investments of the Bergwiesenheu-Genossenschaft cooperative. Since then, he has been the sole producer of certified organic mountain hay in South Tyrol. “Any of the 13 farmers in the cooperative could have taken over. The others probably didn’t really see the opportunity,” says Walter. “Plus, it’s just a very small niche. There is only enough business for a maximum of two to three farmers.”
Walter’s success is based on a sustainable mind set. “We’re not just selling quality products. We’re following our mission to be a successful sustainable farm,” says Walter. At the Niedersteinhof farm, sustainability is more than just a buzzword. Throughout the years, the farm has adopted electric energy on a step-by-step basis.
A few years ago, Walter had an “electric epiphany”. “There was this mower we had owned for many years. In fact, my father bought it right after I was born. We had been using it to mow our mountain pastures. One day it struck me that I could equip it with an electric motor,” Walter recalls. It took him several years to implement his idea. Together with the Bolzano-based company Fazzi, he finally installed an electric motor on his mower. After initial disparagement, Walter’s idea became a sensation that made the South Tyrolean news.
“Suddenly, I had become the e-farmer from the Passeiertal valley,” Walter smiles.
“Initially, it was just a project for myself, but then I got to the point where I really wanted to prove that farming equipment can be operated electrically,” explains Walter. Companies started approaching Walter and began to develop new machinery. “I realize that the industry hasn’t developed sufficiently to operate tractors and large machines electrically,” he admits. His tractor still runs on a combustion engine, but wherever possible he uses electric motors on his farm. A larger electric mower is currently in production. “My electric mower only runs for about an hour before I need to bring it down from the mountain pasture to charge. That’s not ideal, but it’s a good start!” says Walter.
For the fun of it
How can we be even more sustainable? This is the daily quest of Walter and Caroline Moosmair. “I can’t change other people, and I don't even want to, but my family and my farm can serve as a role model. We try to conserve energy and resources. We try to be as self-sufficient as we can,” Walter says. The farm has a photovoltaic system, a small hydroelectric power plant and an electric car. “As a farmer, and especially as an organic farmer, I rely on nature. It’s only natural that I try to preserve it by driving an electric car. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many people that have the courage to go electric,” says Walter.
For him, buying an electric vehicle was a logical consequence. “Having a photovoltaic system allows me to save money by using solar power. Why wouldn’t I invest in something innovative that won’t harm the environment as much and will feed directly off my system?” asks Walter.
The Moosmairs believe in being sustainable and self-sufficient. “It just makes sense to live that way, and it’s fun to try new things.” He and his wife only drive a small electric car with a small battery. “That’s all we need,” says Walter. “We’ve put our slogan on our car: Organic farmers innovatively drive into the future.”
How can Alpine farmers stay authentic?
Most Alpine farms are small and find it difficult to compete. They need to seek new ways to gain attention. “Some say what I do is extreme and not authentic. To me, being authentic means making the best of the resources available. We're simply refining our products and branding them with what we believe in.”
The Niedersteinhof farm has been handed down from generation to generation. It most likely dates back to the 14th century. Walter feels the responsibility that comes with this heritage. “Every generation had their time and their resources. They all tried to make the best of it. We now have our time,” says Walter
“It’s actually a fantastic time for us farmers: People in Europe are well off. They are looking for regional, authentic products and are open to innovation. Farmers shouldn't be complaining. They should look ahead and tackle new challenges.”
Today, the Moosmair family lives on only 5.5 hectares (13.5 acres) of land, with 10 cows and a few mountain pastures. Walter is proud of successfully running such a small farm. “As a farmer, being able to live on hay, a product nobody actually needs to survive, is quite remarkable. It takes creativity and patience to grow the business. We’re no longer the odd ones. If we stay fit and healthy, we’ll continue to see our business thrive,” Walter grins. “After all, we’re just trying to make the best of our farm. We’re ‘making hay’ quite literally.”
Text: Marlene Lobis
Translation into English: Covi, Wurzer & Partner
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Miramonte Film/Andreas Pichler
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