A Dairy Endeavor

How one man’s vision transformed a region

Limburger, commonly associated with German fare, actually originates from the monasteries of Limburg, Belgium. In 1830, the cheese was brought to a special region of southern Bavaria called the Allgäu by Carl Hirnbein, an innovator and agricultural reformer. At the time the Allgäu region was a poor area. Flax was its main crop, which grew well there, covering the landscape with a blue hue. Flax was used for the production of cloth, but after the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, flax began waning in demand. From his travels, Hirnbein saw this shift on the horizon and was willing to take a risk on his land. He decided to pull the flax from his lands and plant grass instead, on which he could raise cows. The cows’ milk would provide a critical source of protein that could be preserved as cheese.

So Hirnbein started to produce Limburger and Romadur with the milk from his cows. He then packaged the cheese in a sellable portion and began to market it. Hirnbein’s enterprise began to slowly change the region, as he bought up small farms and transformed them from hectares of flax to hectares of grass, and expanded his dairy business. He influenced others to start planting grass by offering to pay farmers for the milk they produced from their nascent dairy farms. He gave people of the region a motivation to transform their land. By planting grass which grew well in the region, farmers could keep their farms and, more importantly, provide a form of sustenance to the region.

Today, a visit to the Allgäu region yields breathtaking views of a vibrant and verdant landscape. Unlike the green, yellow, and brown patchwork of land that I associate with American farms, here you see rolling hills of green pasture for miles. It needs no irrigation, no pesticides, no replanting. It is a perennial crop that yields potentially perennial outputs of milk as long as the quality of the cows that graze upon it is maintained. And although the land is dotted with farms, villages, industries, it remains a healthy land. (Notably, the government regulates the number of cows that can be kept on a hectare of land, so that the amount of animals does not exceed the amount the land can sustain both in input of feed and in waste.)

The history of this region’s transformation I see as a model for how we in America can transform the agricultural landscape of the future. Carl Hirnbein was a visionary and he took a risk in converting his land for new and different agricultural purposes. We may have visionaries among us today that can do the same here and abroad. In Kansas, we have Wes Jackson’s Land Institute, experimenting with agriculture based on natural systems, such as prairie polyculture. In Minnesota, Philip Rutter is promoting “woody agriculture” through the production of treenut crops such as hazelnuts and chestnuts, with the hope that these might one day become staple food crops. In Virginia, we have Joel Salatin, whose farm is an American success story of sustainable farming practice. A recent study even shows that pasture-management could be a sustainable alternative use of cropland. Perhaps there are greener pastures in our not-so-distant future.