Up On Mountain Pastures

Adrien Lahittete, a young 22-year-old shepherd from the Terra Madre community of Béarn transhumant shepherds, which recently became the Béarn Mountain Cheese Presidium, told us about his life. The Presidium will come to Cheese 2013.
“At the moment I am attending a course in the Development and Promotion of Local Products at the Pau Agricultural Institute. I have chosen to train in this area because my parents are farmers and I have been involved since I was very young. At first I want it to get away from agriculture, because looking after animals 365 days a year and risking having your family life upset by your work is a difficult choice to make. But then thinking about it more carefully and seeing that, in fact, things were no better elsewhere, I decided to return to doing what I know best. I like being independent, managing everything by myself, from tending animals to processing the milk and selling the cheese. One of the good things about this work is that there isn’t a routine. You have to be versatile and you never get bored: you’ve got to be a bit of a vet when animals give birth, a bit of a businessman to sell your products, a bit of a cook to make the cheese, a bit of a mechanic to fix your equipment, and when you’re up on the pasture, a bit of a builder to repair the building.
There’s always something to do, every day and every season is different. On my parents’ farm we have 120 goats, and we have now added six Béarn cows, the local breed, so we can also play our part in the efforts to defend it. Our first aim is to increase our herd.
The Béarn is a special breed: it produces more milk than the calf needs, so we should manage to get some extra. At the moment we’re making two types of cheese: goat toma and small fresh cheeses (ideal for recipes using melted goat cheese). We sell all our production, which is still fairly modest (42 tomas and about a hundred small fresh cheeses a week), to local restaurants and to local customers at the market.
Farm life is divided into two periods: winter at the farm and summer on the mountain pastures. In winter the animals mainly eat hay and second-cut hay that we grow in summer on the farm while the goats are in the mountains. The farm is situated near Oloron Sainte-Marie (Béarn) on 14 hectares. If we didn’t have the mountain pastures, the farm wouldn’t be big enough to produce forage for the whole year. In summer, from mid June to mid-September, the animals graze on the pastures, but we always try to delay their return as long as possible, depending on the weather, to save as much feed as possible. This year it was very dry in the mountains and not much feed was produced and we had to bring the animals down early because it snowed.
The pastures are at an altitude of 1,700 meters at Magna baigt in the Ossau valley, above the villages of Laruns and Gabas, not far from the Spanish border and near Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the Pyrenees. There the goats have around 400 hectares all to themselves and range totally free. Our summer quarters are here. It’s quite busy because there are two families, my mother, my aunt and their families. There are always at least six or seven people but there’s room for 10 or even 15: the living quarters are around 30 square meters, over two floors. It’s fairly cramped, but not a problem seeing that we spend the whole day outside.
The dairy, where we prepare and store the cheeses for the summer is also around 30 square meters in size. In the mountains our day begins at about seven in the morning, when we milk the goats. At the beginning of the season this can take as long as three hours as the animals are producing a lot of milk. The lactation period begins when the animal gives birth (usually before they go up into the mountains) and lasts about seven months. After milking, we clean all the containers we have used and have a snack. We begin processing the milk in the late morning, and then stop for lunch.
After lunch we have a rest or go for a walk to check on the flock and look for missing animals. In the evening they come back for the second milking by themselves. We have dinner and about seven o’clock we start the second round of milking. At the beginning of the season it takes much longer because of all the milk they are producing, so we only get to bed around midnight or one o’clock; at the end of the season we finish at around 9 or 10.
We’ve been involved with Slow Food for about five years. It began with an invitation to Terra Madre in 2004, and gradually we met people who had discovered our produce. Last year we set up a Presidium project which we presented at Terra Madre. It all went very well, people really appreciated our products, and that motivated us to promote them even more. We then came to Cheese. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience because we have been able to see products very similar to ours from other countries around the world. We discovered many different products and met a host of interesting people: sellers, restaurateurs and others who would like to export our products to other countries. It was great, a wonderful atmosphere.
In this occupation you have to respect the animals and the land because they are what enable you to live. I think that the industrial producers who focus on quantity at the expense of quality will have a short life, because people are increasingly aware how important a healthy environment is. Small-scale high-quality producers who are better able to manage resources and avoid waste now have a real opportunity.
At the moment there is a great problem in France for farmers who only produce milk. Encouraged to produce enormous quantities, they borrowed too much to finance new investment and now that the price of milk has crashed, they are losing money and are forced to throw away their milk. They are totally dependent on other products and are prisoners of the situation.
I think one should produce a small quantity well, from the animal to the final product so you can be independent. That is where the future lies and that’s the main reason I am continuing along this path.”

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