The big cheese

Have a good idea but no money? Try Alexander Agethle’s approach. He financed his cheese dairy with a voucher scheme.

  • August 2016

  • Reading time: 5'

    Reading time (Short): 5'

% extra alt % % extra alt % % extra alt %
Play Video
Article Article Videos Videos Galleries Galleries
Article Article Videos Videos Galleries Galleries

The big cheese

Have a good idea but no money? Try Alexander Agethle’s approach. He financed his cheese dairy with a voucher scheme.

Alexander Agethle is what they call a ‘modern farmer’ in South Tyrol. He went to college and for a while he could not decide whether or not to take over his parents’ Englhof farm, which is located in Clusio/Schleis in the Vinschgau valley. When he nevertheless chose to become a farmer, he knew exactly how he wanted to run things. When he wanted to buy the old village cheese dairy, he did not ask the bank for a loan. Instead, he offered his customers a deal: Vouchers for cheese.

Each morning Alexander Agethle hangs the traditional cowbells around the necks of his cows, Hedi, Lilli, Kessy, etc., and he drives them from their stall to the fields. Agethle, a 43-year old from Clusio/Schleis in the upper Vinschgau valley, is the last farmer in the small village at the foot of the Marienberg monastery to continue the practice. Some laugh at him but, as he says, “If the cows like it, it can’t be all that bad.”

suedtirol altoadige englhorn 6

A farm in South Tyrol is not a cattle ranch in California.

Agethle did not always think like this. While he was studying agriculture in Florence and subsequently working on a cattle ranch in California, he had a conventional understanding of farming and the maximisation of profits. Today, it feels like a stroke of good fortune that he was refused a US visa following a visit back home because he had not completed his military service, even if it represented the beginning of a painful process at the time. At the time, Agethle had wanted to live in the USA for a few more years at least. He expressed the frustration of this setback by doing sports, climbing and biking obsessively. Then he decided to quit his studies.

Farming is all about making do with what is there.

After quitting college Agethle cast around, first working on an EU-sponsored project at the Alpine Research Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, then going as a development aid volunteer to Kosovo. But he kept returning to South Tyrol for short spells. “That showed me how privileged we actually are,” he says. By his late twenties, he was gradually thinking seriously about returning home. But buying animal feed from all over the world to maximise the profit from cattle breeding? Using soy from South America to manufacture milk products that are then shipped all over the world from Bolzano/Bozen? “That went against all my notions of greenness. I wanted to farm in a way that makes best use of what we have here.”

suedtirol altoadige englhorn 19

Back in Florence, he met his future wife, who by chance came from a neighbouring village in the Vinschgau valley, although they had never before met. His meeting Sonja was a further turning point: She had always been environmentally conscious and had been a vegetarian for some time. Her opinions were an inspiration to him and he began to learn more about agricultural practices and their global interaction. At the Englhof farm, meanwhile, everything carried on as before: His parents regularly made the same sort of money from their animals as had his grandfather.

suedtirol altoadige englhorn 13

For everything to remain the same at the Englhof, everything had to change.

There was no shortage of disagreement when Alexander Agethle finally took over the family farm in 2003. Hardly surprising considering that he jettisoned what had for his parents been the basis of their whole working lives. He replaced the breeding animals with an older breed of cattle, the original brown cow, and he thereupon decided to produce cheese with Max Eller, a good friend and a cheesemaker.

The idea was not to establish a classical cheese dairy, like those typical of other farms. Instead we wanted to establish a cheese manufactory named after the “Englhorn farm.” At first, the couple processed the milk from their twelve cows in the farmhouse cellar. When, two years ago, the building that housed the old village dairy farm came up for sale, Agethle didn’t deliberate for long. The building was located next door and he needed the space for his cheese dairy and shop.

How much is an Englhorn share worth?

A single Englhorn share is equivalent to 200 grams of cheese. There were 110 vouchers at 500 euros each, so for eleven years buyers can obtain two kilos of cheese or other dairy-farm products such as butter or grain. The first cheese is provided immediately after purchase of the shares.

suedtirol altoadige englhorn 15

The new business model: letting others share in your success!

But how to find the money? Agethle, who sees himself as a farming entrepreneur, decided on a new business model that today forms the basis for his success: crowdfunding. Those making an advance purchase of cheese for 500 euros (or a multiple thereof) will in return receive vouchers for his award-winning products. These so-called “Englhörner” can then be redeemed directly in the shop. And not just there: The Hotel Greif in Malles/Mals and the Restaurant Broeding in Munich will also accept cheese vouchers as payment. Meanwhile, he has already raised 180,000 euros with more to come. Agethle is still impressed by the fact that people will grant him this “ethical” credit. “I am amazed at how many people feel the need to spend their money on something worthwhile.”

Crowdfunding is…

…in simple terms, a financing model where several people support a project financially out of conviction and thus often assist an idea to achieve a breakthrough. For the Englhorn farm, it was a question of raising money from customers to finance the new farmhouse cheese dairy. Offering vouchers for the purchase of cheese was technically the simplest solution. A total of 181 people acquired “Englhörner” and thus many years’ worth of Agethle’s cheese.

Suddenly the clanging of cowbells can be heard in the distance. Alexander Agethle jumps up from the table and goes over to the stall. If he cannot personally bring his “girls” down from the pasture, he wants to at least to welcome each cow home individually. From the way the animals trot down slowly, it seems that they too know how good things are for them. Does he now regret that he was not able to go back to America? Agethle smiles quietly to himself. “No,” he says from the stable door, “everything is fine as it is.”

Text: Verena Duregger
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photo: Alex Filz
Video: Andreas Pichler

How did make your dream come true?

Have you had any experience with crowdfunding or have you found other people to help you realise your dreams? Tell us how you were able to inspire others with a great idea!