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In the Austrian Tyrol....small is beautiful....

I don't suppose spending five days visiting my son Michael and Steffi and family in Innsbruck really qualifies me to write about agriculture in the Tyrol - but it was of great interest for me to see the farming going on in the Inn Valley while we toured around and visited the sights.

The Inn Valley is wider than I expected, surrounded as it is by the Alps which rise up to 2,500m. Glacial effects must have contributed to the fertile soil in the valley as vegetables and soft fruit predominate there - potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips and strawberries. These were all the crops I saw growing outside - there were other varieties being grown under glass.

As the land rises up from the valley to the lower mountain slopes, it becomes grassland - rich meadow pasture, abundant with wild flowers and giving a very sweet scent. It was haymaking time, being June, with a spell of hot weather giving 30 degrees centigrade temperatures. The fields are small as there are not great areas of level land but the machinery is smaller too (compared with some of the excessively big machines we are used to in the the UK).

I was quite impressed by the stooks of hay raised on poles or frames, which of course allow drying air to move through the grass more easily. Maybe this is more sensible than our approach in the UK where the cut grass stays on the ground; rain or dew can quickly spoil the drying process and undermine the quality of the crop. But stooks may be easier to achieve in Austria where the plots of land being mown are small. It would take a lot of labour to use this system in some of our large fields.

I was told there are vineyards in some places in the Inn Valley but my travels this time did not find them. Livestock farming was also on a small scale in the areas I visited. Perhaps they are more extensive in other parts of Austria as the Austrians do enjoy their meat dishes. While I was there I saw sheep, goats and cattle. The cattle here are more of a dairy breed and I was told their temperament is in keeping with that, ie they can be dangerous, especially when with their young. But the romantic sound of the cow bells in the valley was beguiling and fitting in this tidy and well-managed rural area.

The one farm I did visit was Steffi's family farm. Its focus was equine, providing livery and riding. The forests beyond the farm's boundaries allow riders to venture for miles along forest roads and tracks. Along the way are intermittent 'Alms', small hostels and places to eat or drink, where travellers (foreign or local) can seek and find refreshment, throughout the day. In wintertime, or thunderstorms (!), they are a welcome source of refuge.

A special feature of this farm was that some of their horses are kept to offer therapy to injured or disabled people - including military personnel recovering from injury or combat stress. The horses' temperament can have a remarkable 'healing' quality and the people who work here must derive much pleasure and satisfaction from helping those with difficulties to conquer.

Timber production did not seem to be a commercial activity here. There is a lot of forestry on the lower mountain slopes - mainly conifer but interspersed with beech, maple, ash and birch. Avalanches do cause some natural clearance and the good quality timber is stacked along the forest tracks. I understand that the trees may have greater value for habitat and for a degree of control over snowfall (and avalanches) and therefore any felling and replanting tends to be small-scale and specific. All the better for the landscape perhaps, as the Inn Valley is a beautiful place.

So it was a fascinating and eye-opening - even though short - visit. The weather was hot but I am told that is following a very wet and cold May. There was snow still melting on the mountain tops keeping the River Inn full and fast moving (it flows east to meet the Danube).

I enjoyed my visit, enhanced with family able to show me around (and talk the language!). It will be a great experience to see the changing seasons if or more likely when, more visits are arranged in the future.

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