Very Small Farmland

When we take pictures and write things for this blog, we tend to crop out the strips of banks and car dealerships that take up so much room in Europe. In Liechtenstein, that process of snipping and excluding can be somewhat difficult and tedious. It's not impossible though - this was a land, until very recently, of farmers. In some ways, it can still seem that way.

Liechtenstein is a country that seems to exist at the crux of past and present - suspended, almost, between fast paced development and a desire to remain pastoral. There is a chance that the entire country could become a sea of cement towers, built up in an economic flurry of Swiss francs and low regulation. It's already partway there - there are about twice as many businesses registered in Liechtenstein as there are residents. It's a surprise, then, to find traffic stopped - rows of Porsches and Audis in either direction - while herds of Brown Swiss are brought in for milking.

There are farms here, and a whole community of people who have held onto a lifestyle that seems at odds with the funds and letterbox companies that have recently proliferated. Especially where the Rhine has carved out Liechtenstein's valley, and there is a little flat land, the farms appear to thrive. They have more and better equipment than farmers elsewhere, and their barnyards are abustle with laborers and people. Higher up in the Alps, the fields are steeper and less productive, but the farmers there still manage to seem prosperous.
I was amazed when I learned that only ten percent of Liechtenstien's area was used primarily for agriculture. Walking through the valley and the upper meadows, it seems that the entire country is practically covered with corn and grazing cows. In the highest folds of the mountains, the hundreds of plunking cowbells sound like rain in a tin bucket. Alpine dairies have actually experienced a resurgence in recent years, profiting from a newfound appreciation for small-scale production and traditionally made foodstuffs.

Part of the reason that the country isn’t more agricultural is that the bulk of Liechtenstein is unsuitable for anything other than rock-climbing. Also, much of the farmland has been converted into parking lots and for use beneath the walls of commercial buildings. One could be forgiven, actually, for thinking that the screen of highrises along the main road is the entirety of the principality. Driving through Liechtenstien on the primary thoroughfare can feel like traversing a bad stretch of suburban New Jersey. Behind this tax-haven screen, though, another world lies somewhat undisturbed.

It isn't all the way it used to be, though. The country just isn't big enough to support some of the larger farms, and hay and silage need to be imported from neighboring Switzerland and Austria. The feed comes in by the truckload, boosting milk and beef production. It brings involuntary thoughts of commodities trading to mind, and suspicions about how much of this prosperity is actual and how much of it is subsidized in order for the principality to appear more rustic than it actually is.

Really, there's a kind of farm nostalgia here that is maybe more visible than it should be. The principality overplays its past to hide some of the soullessness of its present. One weekend morning, a long procession of dress-shirt-wearing men (and women) rode through Vaduz on their gleaming antique tractors. Neither the drivers nor the machines looked as though they had been close to a farm in a long time, and the whole thing wasn't much different than the usual catwalk of classic and exotic cars that streams through town.

But it is nice to be here, in a place where roadside farm stands (however scantily stocked) stand nearby Raiffeisen and Citigroup. It's great to be able to walk for a long ways through old pastures and to see men cutting hay with scythes. It feels almost more enchanting, given the contrast. And how couldn’t you forgive a country for trying its hardest to maintain a cultural heritage – especially when the nation is so small and could so easily be overwhelmed.
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