Established in 1975 on difficult, hilly land above the Luz Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains, Ferme des Cascades has seen its fair share of transitions. Starting from nothing, Jean-Michel Gabriel purchased 2 acres of steep, marginal land per year for seven years and built up a barn, dairy, and herd of goats. In 1990, a young british gal named Susie, who was traveling through to Spain with visions of eventually moving to South America, was lending a hand on the farm. Tragically during her stay a fire started in the hay and burned everything down. Susie ended up sticking around to help rebuilding the farm, dedicating herself to the care of the goats and the cheese making, while Jean-Michel rebuilt and expanded the farm to eventually include sheep and cows. In the last few years the farm has taken on three new associates in their 20's to continue the farm as Jean-Michel looks forward to retirement.
The farm has grown to include a large shop selling about different 90 products from the farm, including booties and g-strings(!) crafted from sheep and goat hides.
Our well equipped apartment was situated above the barn, on the edge of the cascading river that is the farm's namesake. The views of the surrounding peaks and the town of Luz below were stunning. Our first nights stay saw the first snow on the peaks.
Fall is the quietest time of year on the farm, so our stay was not the typical WWOOF experience. Jean-Michel was taking vacation as the animals themselves were also beginning their 'vacation' period. The sheep and cows, who had been grazing on high mountain pastures all summer had stopped giving milk, and the goats were winding down as well. Our first few mornings we awoke before the sun and milked the 50 goats by hand for the last few times of the season.
We found that we both enjoyed being up before the dawn milking and feeding the animals.
Our first week was the busiest of the three, as there was much to do in preparation for bringing the sheep and cows in for the winter. The barn needed to be cleared of a year's worth of manure, roughly 300 tons or 700 cubic meters. Fortunately the majority of the work was done by machine, but we still needed to get the tricky bits by hand.
Once the barn was cleared we headed up to the estive, the high summer pastures, to clear out the cabin and bring the animals down to the farm. Pompom, the donkey, made hauling stuff down the mountain much easier.
The grass was getting thin on the upper pastures and the gals would be lambing soon so it was time to bring them back to the farm, approximately 10km down stream.
A quick head count before we head down.
The sheep were happy to stay in a group as we make our way down. Any dawdling and Fig, the well trained sheep dog, encouraged them along. Honestly the hardest part was getting them to slow down, and on the steep bits it was especially difficult to keep up.
Heide does a head count back at the farm, not an easy task with 60+ moving units.
Surprisingly it is the rams are the most affectionate and curious amongst the herd.
George in particular seems to enjoy human company.
Before their wool gets covered in straw and poop from sleeping in the barn it is time for them to get a haircut.
A professional was brought in to do the shearing and we lent a hand directing the sheep and bagging up the wool, which will be used as insulation.
Everyone looking a bit naked after the trim.
Once the sheep and cows where back on the farm we settled into the routine of leading the animals out to pasture at sunrise before having our own breakfast; a pace to the beginning of our day that we truly enjoyed.
While the sheep and cows must remain fenced in, the goats are allowed to roam the hills unsupervised. They either lead themselves back to the farm in the evening or stay out for multiple days. Given that they were not being milked we did not need to round them up and bring them back to the barn. During the milking season, WWOOFers typically stay with the goats during their afternoon grazing period and then guide them back to the milking parlor for the evening milking.
In the dairy we helped make the last few batches of chèvre, as well as washed and turned the aging cheeses. A job we were well familiar with from our time at Truttenhausen.
Given the fact that there was little work in the milking parlor and dairy we were available to take on other projects. One task needing attention was mending the fences around the farm pastures that had been unused all summer.
Another job was building dry stone walls in an effort to create level ground in a garden set in the hilly landscape.
Susie had a few small projects that she was excited to tackle with our help. One was to experiment with tanning animal hides with natural methods, such as soaking them in bark tea.
First we scrapped the fatty tissue from the hides.
Next we cooked up some bark tea and left the hides to soak. In a few weeks Susie will remove the hides and let us know how successful it was.
Our work was often interrupted by puppies looking for some affection.
As if puppies weren't enough we were fortunate enough to see the birth of the first few lambs of the season. They were needy and adorable. Heide gladly helped out with the bottle feeding.
It wasn't all work though, and on our first weekend we hiked up to the Ardiden Lakes and spent the night at the estive cabin.
It was gloriously warm and sunny and we had hoped for a swim in the lake, but we did not give ourselves enough time to make it all the way up to the top lakes that were deep enough to swim in. It was still a beautiful hike and a nice break from the farm.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to experience the estive in the off-season without any other workers around or jobs that needed attending to.
We relaxed and read and Heide wandered off to find a spot in the stream to have a dip.
Heide whipped up a delicious meal over a campfire with our meager rations.
Our second weekend off we borrowed the car and headed further into the mountains to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cirque de Gavarnie.
We lucked out again with the weather for our ramble up to the falls and back. The autumn colors were on full display.
Ferme des Cascades was a good place to call home for our last few weeks of WWOOFing. We learned a great deal about what it looks like to care for these dairy animals in a stunning mountain setting. Time with the animals will surely be what we miss the most in saying good-bye. We both feel it is likely that at some point in the future we may again start our day tending to a few goats or a cow and we will be thankful for our experiences at this unique place in the Pyrenees.