Bergland: A Commitment to Quality and Good Health
In Ernen, the "Bergland" is something of an institution. Most visitors to the village saunter at one time or another past the shop marked "Waren aller Art", (Wares of all Kinds) that features a host of healthy food products, cards, and beautifully crafted handmade gifts. Since it has all the charm and freshness of a pop-up store, many don’t realize that it’s at the heart of a busy farm and bio-dynamic marketing enterprise that’s almost as old as the town’s famous music festival.
Bergland is an agro-tourist operation and way of life that three Erner families founded 27 years ago. Their intention − then as now − was to steer an awareness of home-grown produce, including herbs and flowers, in their little alpine village, and to share a sense of community with their kin. The two brothers and their wives still live in the large family home just behind the Restaurant St. Georg, which is a fine culinary locale. The third couple lives not far away.
It was in 1989 that Ruedi Schweizer and his brother Stefan took up job as part-time foresters in Ernen. Historically, the job been subsidized by the municipality, but at the time, the erection of avalanche protection has emptied the village coffers, so the foresters worked on a free-lance basis. At the same time, and with the engagement of the third family, the brothers purchased their first herd of sheep. The preservation of age-old Walliser traditions was always in the foreground, meaning that animals threatened with dwindling numbers − both wild and domestic − would be protected, and that various cultural traditions related to land management would be maintained.
In 1992, the three associated families owned only 6 hectares of land collectively, but ten years later, they were able to add another 50 hectares to their holdings. It was then, under the name of "Bergland Produkte," that produce gardening for profit began. In light of the amount of sunlight hours in Wallis compared to other parts of the country, renewable energies were considered, and ultimately, collectible assets were turned into the then-pioneer solar technology.
The interest in a collective living model is one they would cultivate actively even as their families grew. The two brother’s children grew up, as one told me, as "brother and sister," although they are cousins. Meals are still taken together; responsibilities, divided. The older of the two brothers is head of the enterprise today, and both wives, Daniela and Pia, are employed full time managing the kitchen, apprentices, tourist offers, and gardens.
At the same time, the families’ commitment to "soft tourism" grew. The Schweizers opened two rooms to house four to five guests. They began riding and mule-trekking trips for visitors of all ages, who delighted in riding the animals over rudimentary woods trails and at alpine heights, much as their ancestors had once crossed the passes to get to farther reaches of the country. Most recently, a number of 1-3 day treks, and a culinary offer that explores various local specialties have been added to the catalogue of activities. Further, the guest rooms have been completely modernized (one now has a kitchen unit), and Bergland even sponsors a low-key "KulturGarten" music program for hardy souls who don’t mind sitting outside.
Further, the association raises and markets Hinterwälder beef, lightweight, but hardy animals that are raised and slaughtered under humane conditions. Bergland’s Walliser sheep (Landschaf) and wooly outdoor pigs (Wollhaarige Weiderschwein) are among the species protected. And what began as a first investment in lamb has expanded over the years to include young veal, German edelschwein, various sausages, and dried meats. The association also manages some 50 beehives, and produces a sweet honey that is available – as are the other products – in the shop or online.
As a visitor staying in one of the two newly renovated rooms on the Schweizers’ third floor, I can always see visitors to Ernen looking in at the shop downstairs. No wonder: there are always fresh vegetables in large crates on offer, a bouquet of nasturtiums to decorate a table or to sprinkle over salads. The "Spycher" storehouse is serviced every day, since, invariably, the Bergland apprentices are hard at work in the fields that surround the village. Every morning from 6.30, one of them can be seen scurrying up and down the Spycher stairs with the crates full of greens. Later in the day, there is pruning and harvesting to be done.
One of the perks about having a room at the Bergland house is that I breakfast with the family and the apprentices. The hosts have treated me like a welcome guest, generously shared the stories of their work model and village through the years, and given me the benefit of deliciously fresh farm products: cheese and herbs, lovely bread and honey. Each of the apprentices is here for a different reason; the two young women are committed to careers in agronomy; the young man is doing civil service in lieu of soldiering in the army. To what degree the members of the next generation of family will share the responsibility of the house and bio-dynamic farm is still up in the air. But for the moment, the model for living, three-family ownership, and shared administration – with a couple of holiday visitors to Bergland thrown in the mix − make it not only a lively and prosperous enterprise, but a promise for a healthy diet and a wholesome peace of mind.
Ernen, Friday, 5 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet