Decades ago, Maria and Captain Georg von Trapp inspired the musical The Sound of Music. Now settled in northern Vermont, the family’s younger generations practice sustainable land management that ski resorts around the world have been experimenting with for decades: Cows, sheep, goats, and other grazers savor their summer meals on winter-sports land.
It’s an overcast afternoon at the Trapp Family Lodge in northern Vermont, and out in the Wedding Meadow, 150 chickens are taking in the views of Worcester Range spread out behind the bright-white event tents. Twenty-one sheep are enjoying a snack in front of the Austrian-style villas, half a dozen pigs are patrolling Luce Trail, and over by the practice meadow, sixty-five Scottish Highland cows with shaggy bangs and gentle eyes are trotting for cover as the sky cracks open into a midsummer storm.
Balance of system
Appearances to the contrary, this is not an alpine sequel to Animal Farm in which barnyard creatures seize the ski industry. Rather, the scene depicts new developments in an approach to sustainable land management that ski resorts around the world have been experimenting with for decades. The idea is to combine agriculture and recreation in a way that benefits farmers, resort operators, and tourists alike. When animals graze on ski slopes, fewer resources go into mowing, summer visitors get a brush with rustic mountain life, and cows, sheep, and other animals get access to the alpine plants that produce some of the tastiest cheese and meat imaginable.
“They benefit, we benefit,” says Patrick Bliss, the tanned and goateed Vermont native who has served as property manager at the Trapp Family Lodge for seven years and head turkey-herder, pig procurer, and chicken caretaker for two.
“They benefit, we benefit.”
The Sound of music—where are they now?
The 2,500-acre (ca. 1,012-hectare) resort he tends is drawing attention for its innovative use of animals, but it also happens to be one of the most storied ski lodges in North America. Johannes von Trapp, who today runs the resort with his son Sam, daughter Kristina, and son-in-law Walter Frame, is the son of Maria and Captain Georg von Trapp, the real-life couple who inspired The Sound of Music. Most musical fans know that the family of singers fled Europe to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930s; fewer realize they made their new home on a verdant mountainside in Stowe, Vermont, and later opened an Austrian-style ski resort there.
For years, Johannes kept cattle on the land as a hobby, but in 2013 the family took a cue from their state’s thriving farm-to-table movement and decided to experiment with pigs, chickens, turkeys, and sheep as well. Today, meat and eggs from the grass-fed animals go into bratwurst, sauerbraten, and other special dishes served in the dining room, much to the delight of guests. The family hopes to expand its herds in coming years, Bliss says.
Long-standing practice in the European Alps
Though the project has few parallels in the U.S., it would hardly raise an eyebrow in the European Alps where the von Trapp family once lived.
“Most of the ski areas in Europe were predated by other uses of the forest, in many cases farming,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, which represents 350 U.S. ski area owners and operators.
Mountain farmers raised small herds of dairy cows or goats (think Heidi) and transformed their milk into alpine cheeses like Gruyère and fontina. As skiing became increasingly popular throughout the twentieth century, however, resorts displaced some of these farms and damaged the fragile mountain ecosystems surrounding them. Road and slope construction caused erosion, artificial snow froze spring growth, and development brought its usual cascade of concrete and cars to quiet mountain villages.
But in other cases, farmers worked out a fruitful coexistence with their new neighbors. They leased pastures to ski operators in winter, or even became part owners of resorts themselves. The income from these arrangements gave them a way to maintain their traditional farms. “It’s a fascinating balance of two realities,” says Berry.
“It’s a fascinating balance of two realities.”
One place where this model thrives is the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad. The tony alpine village is home to dozens of celebrities (including Julie Andrews, of The Sound of Music fame), but also to 7,000 Simmentaler cows, who saunter past the designer boutiques each summer with bells on their necks and crowns of flowers on their heads, bound for ski slope pastures. Farmers boil their milk in copper kettles to make Berner Hobelkäse, a hard slicing cheese.
Importing an idea
The balance between agriculture and alpine recreation has proven trickier in North America, with its very different history and ecology. “Not to say their interests are mutually exclusive, but although the ski areas create pastureland, generally the compatibility of the two activities is not seen as beneficial,” says Berry.
One problem is that permits for grazing typically do not overlap with permits for ski use, especially in western states where resorts often operate on Forest Service land. The two types of permits come with different rules for water quality, erosion, and other environmental impacts. The recent boom in summer recreation at ski resorts (the result of new legislation allowing more off-season use) poses another challenge.
Whether the reason lies in these obstacles, or simply in the added complications that animals entail, grazing hasn’t taken hold in a big way on slopes outside of Europe. Big Rock Ski Area in Maine, Killington Resort in Vermont, and The Canyons, in Utah, all launched and then discontinued programs. In Japan, Australian snowboard-photographer-turned-farmer Rob Alexander grazed goats on a ski slope in Nagano, attracting copious media attention, but shut down the business in 2014.
One program that hasn’t fizzled out is at Vancouver’s Sun Peaks Ski Resort, which since its founding in 1962 has shared 4,000 alpine acres with local ranchers. Today 400 beef cattle graze all the alpine bowls up to the summit, says slopes manager Seth Worthen. Keeping them out of the village requires six miles of electric fencing, but Worthen says the effort of installing it each year is worthwhile. “It keeps the grass mowed down and the brush from encroaching onto the ski runs,” he says. That cuts diesel and gas use by about a quarter.
Bliss hopes to soon reap similar savings on the Trapp Family Lodge’s backcountry slopes. So far, the animals have stayed on the lower-elevation cross-country courses, but two years ago his team cleared twenty acres of steep forested land for more adventurous skiers. Keeping them sapling-free requires “hand-to-hand combat” by a team of five chain-saw-wielding men, Bliss says, since the tree stumps rule out tractor use. Sheep, on the other hand, “will pick a stump clean.”
To that end, Sam von Trapp is raising a flock of Katahdin sheep that he hopes to move onto the land next year. Originally bred to clear brush under power lines, the sheep are famously un-picky eaters, turn foliage into protein with great efficiency, and require little care aside from guarding against predators.
The project promises to add yet another layer to an already complex system. For Bliss, managing that system has been challenging but hugely rewarding. “It’s not just about farm-to-table, but how to fit it into the resort setting, which is tricky,” he says. “We’re under a microscope, but at the end of the day, that’s the best for the animals.” If the system proves equally beneficial for the owners of those animals, other ski area operators in the United States just may start to take notice. △