Dartmoor farmers in Switzerland learning how to eat the view
Recently a delegation from rural Switzerland signed an accord with farmers and tourism-providers on Dartmoor - Martin Hesp has been finding out what this unique meeting of minds is all about
The two most important industries in this region are tourism and farming, and in some people’s eyes it is a pity that those involved with both so rarely meet for a bout of joined-up thinking.
Our beautiful landscapes - from the high heather moors to the deep verdant vales - have been shaped by agriculture, so it seems a shame that this fact isn’t put over more loudly and clearly to the millions of tourists who visit the region because of the beauty of that scenery.
When a visitor compliments someone who has provided them with a delicious meal of locally sourced food, they ought to be told the story...
The hotel proprietor, pub waitress, restaurant cook or whichever local who’s provided the meal should be able to say: “We’re glad you liked the food because - you know that countryside you enjoyed visiting today...? Well, the production of the ingredients you’ve just eaten helped make it the way it is.”
In a place that’s surrounded by farms and fields that might be easy to understand - but the story needs a little bit more telling when you are talking about the wild unfenced heaths of places like Exmoor, Bodmin Moor, West Penwith, the Quantocks and Dartmoor.
The tale is equally authentic, though. The high moors are as much a product of mankind’s perpetual bid to produce food as our lowland meadows.
But there’s yet more power to this equation. The provider of the local food ought, for example, to be saying: “The incredible flavours you’ve just enjoyed arrived on that plate because of the landscape. It’s because our special breeds of indigenous cattle and sheep graze on the diverse herbage out there, that their meat tastes so good.”
I could go on expounding the merits of the food-meets-tourism equation, but I don’t need to. Because I’ve met a man who’s been banging on about if for more than 40 years. And, more to the point, a number of farmers, movers-and-shakers, and tourism-providers on Dartmoor have met him too.
His name is Hans Forrer and this week he’s been on Dartmoor with a delegation of 15 similarly-minded and knowledgeable colleagues from a remote valley in central Switzerland. They’ve been visiting in reply to an invitation from the Dartmoor Partnership and its affiliated group, Dartmoor Farmers - and what has been inaugurated is a unique kind of twinning accord which will see the people of both the Devon upland and the Swiss valley enjoying and sharing mutual experience and knowledge.
Why has such an accord been signed? That’s a long story - but what interested various Dartmoor locals like farmer Andy Bradford was the fact that the Swiss area of Simmental began focussing on the marriage of tourism and food production long long before it was a twinkle in any British marketing guru’s eye.
There’s a story from the Alps that goes something like this... There came a time when winter skiing, and the mass-tourism market it created, caused some farmers up there in the mountains to throw in the towel and chase paid jobs, rather than continue the gruelling work of high-altitude milk and cheese production.
But, as is usual in life, there was a bit of cause-and-effect. The ski operators began to find that the winter snow pistes were nowhere near as good as they had been. They cover what are steep alpine meadows in summer - and it turned out that if these meadows aren’t grazed, then the extra plant growth causes problems with the piste.
The solution was to persuade the farmers to carry on summer grazing, partly by heavy marketing and promotion of their delicious mountain cheeses to the throngs of skiing tourists who turn up in winter.
It was a win-win solution. The pistes were good, the farmers were happy, and the tourists enjoyed fine skiing and fabulous local produce.
About ten years ago Mr Bradford saw this happening - and decided the same marriage of tourism and farming could and should be happening on his home patch of Dartmoor.
“If you took the mountains away in Simmental - or if you go there on a foggy day - you might think you were in Dartmoor,” he told me. “They have the heather in the lower regions - it is managed in a different way, which is interesting to look at - but as whole they have the same issues and problems, with schools and post offices closing for example, as we do over here.
“We can learn so much from them,” he went on, telling me the story how the new partnership between the two areas that was set up. “Hans Forrer was brought in by the Simmental local government in 1969 as a development officer between farming and tourism. That’s over 40 years ago!
“It’s amazing they had the foresight to do that - and Hans brought in lots of ideas all that time ago. I know we have a lot going on here on Dartmoor - but it focusses our minds to see where they have come from - and how far they have come. They still actively promote this marriage between farming and tourism now.
“There is a whole tourism-marketing PR campaign surrounding their region’s produce,” said Andy. “And we are going there in October to see what they call one of their ‘alp-culture periods’ - when they’re bringing cattle back down from the mountain to the towns. The point is, everyone there knows what’s going on - they know the story behind their local food.
“Here, for example, we have the Dartmoor white-face sheep and the traditional cattle like the South Devons - but how many visitors know about them? Dartmoor is a landscape that is managed by the farmers - and that is the product which we want to market through our hotels etc. That’s very much what the Swiss have been doing.
“This is an opportunity for us to learn how they do it - even to look at the structures they’ve set up. Because this isn’t just about farmers, it’s about the whole structure,” said the enthusiastic agrarian of Brimpts Farm.
Hans Forrer has now retired from office, but is still working as a consultant - and he was with the Swiss delegation at Widecombe Fair this week: “I’ve been coming to Dartmoor for 10 years and I’m an absolute fan of the people and the area,” he told me. “I met Andy and now he is a very good friend. We both had the idea of making a partnership.
“Andy came to Lenk (the capital of the Simmental area) and talked to the marketing people in the tourist office - for the first time I was not involved - then he came back to me and said: ‘Right, you have to work now - we’ve got this going’.”
“There are similarities,” between the two areas,” said Hans. “It is interesting - we are not in the EU, and you are - and some framers here tell me they’d like to come and farm in Switzerland because of that. But I can tell you it’s not so easy.
“It’s true that the ski pistes sometimes had problems,” he went on. “Farmers try to do everything they can to keep farming - but if you only have five cows, you cannot do it. So they get jobs on the railways or something like that, so they have a real income. Then they try to do both, but it is difficult.
“Generally we make cheese - everywhere is cheese - we have really alpine cheese...” he said. “The farmer up there on the high alp makes the best cheese and we know that. More and more now, we are really promoting programmes for the country - more and more the Swiss are not wanting cheese or products from a big company - they want to go to an area and buy the best produce. They know it is the best.”
If only more and more British people would do the same...
Simon Chamberlain, who is the new chairman of the Dartmoor Partnership - the organisation behind the partnership - would agree.
Speaking to me at Widecombe Fair he gazed around and said: “I look at this event and think: ‘Crikey, I wish the whole country could see this rather than just the people here today’. This is what the English countryside is all about - people coming together and combining their resources.”
As for the Swiss-Dartmoor partnership, he said: “It’s a win-win idea. There are beautiful places all over the world and when you meet people who live in those places you realise we’ve got a lot of common interests in preserving our landscapes, in looking after our businesses, and sharing best-practice. Which is what this project is all about.
“And it’s about building community. The more sense of community there is across Europe, the stronger we all will be.”
Bill Hitchens, chairman of Dartmoor National Park Authority, seemed to agree: “It’s an excellent idea if it is promoting understanding the qualities of our various landscapes and the problems and opportunities and challenges that face us,” he said.
“The more knowledge and experience we can absorb from our Swiss partners, the better. There is an exchange visit going on shortly - so that will be the beginning of the process and I look forward to seeing the fruits of their labours. And I think it’s really good that the producers themselves are driving this initiative - I congratulate them on their efforts.”
In Saturday's WMN we find out what the Dartmoor delegation discovered when it visited the Simmental in Switzerland Last weekend? Are there similarities between the two areas? Have delegates learned new tricks in how to promote the uniqueness of a beautiful area?
Will there be ways of structuring the output of somewhere seemingly wild and untamed like Dartmoor? Or was the Simmental too mountainous, too foreign and too different for the new knowledge to be of any use?