Big World on a farm

You call yourself a ‘modern traditionalist’, Mr. Tappeiner. What does this mean to you?
I connect the good things of the past with the good things of the present. A lot of what our ancestors had done was very innovative, however, a lot of it was simply inefficient. The question is, what of that can we bring into the here and now. In the past, the definitions were different: a good harvest meant that everyone was fed, and a bad one, that people remained hungry. In today’s capitalist and self-absorbed times, everyone thinks of themselves and their own bank account. It was different before. 

What do you conclude from this?
Most companies just think of the next quarterly period. Shareholders need to constantly be informed and the profits doubled or tripled. This is mind-boggling and disconcerting. All the more so when I read headlines that for example, Facebook’s revenue rises by 47%, that the stock market expects more and that the stocks will plummet afterwards. People today simply don’t know when it’s enough - a tree can’t grow endlessly.

What do you do differently?
Family businesses like ours neither think ‘quarterly’, nor year to year. We think in generations and centuries. My family would not benefit from me severely overusing the land, only to find a few years later that it is completely exhausted and depleted. High-performance agriculture puts the land, animals and people under extreme strain. When a part of this system collapses, nature and subsequently the circle of life falls out of balance - a total meltdown occurs. We literally take the ground from beneath our feet - the foundation of life. A lot of people should think about this.

Can you save the world?
We can save our small world here at the Oberniederhof in the Senales Valley. In contrast to the global players, we neither need to partake in the stock market nor cash out to greedy shareholders. The only thing we need to do is be mindful of how we run our business so that we can have a good life. But I will not need to deal with this for long.

Why so?
The new “CEO” of Oberniederhof is called Fabian and he is 28 years old.

What will you do then?
I will be something in the likes of Head of the Supervisory Board. As I am pretty driven, I will be very active in my new role and I will surely give my successor unwanted tips (smiles). But all this does not matter. What is more important is that my son (Fabian) wants to willingly take over the family property. At the end of the year, he will manage the farm including three vacation homes, a dozen cows, 30 chickens, six oxen, as well as the farm dog Abby and Mimmi the cat. 

Wait a second. You never wanted to be a farmer?
I wanted to study sports or medicine. But a farmer? No way! I was always grudgingly doing the work that my parents wanted me to do around the farm. I rather wanted to break out into the big wide world. Instead, I sat here in the Senales valley, doubtful and at odds with everything. My future property was weighing on me.

How do you mean?
The property - the more than 700 year old and protected farm, the land and the livestock are a pride and a burden at the same time. I am one of five children and I came into this world to be the heir to the farm. Furthermore, here in South Tyrol, property is valued, it is something nice to have on one hand. On the other, however, it is a huge responsibility and obligation to continue the family business. A long weekend to Mallorca or a trip to the US was unimaginable at that time. The farm goes before anything. I escaped into sports, ice hockey and football for a while. 

How did the change of mind occur?
I got to know the love of my life, Petra from Berlin. She moved here with me and then in 1997, we changed everything. We thought that only by reinventing everything would Oberniederhof have a chance for another 700 years. 

What exactly did you do differently?
We did a classic profit and loss account, a business analysis, and ran a strong/weak model on the farm. I learned a lot from it, established proper process management and developed a 7 year business plan. Nothing more than that. 

This sounds like serious business work.
Neither did the farm nor us have a future to look forward to. This led us to make the operations ecological, create guided tours for the guests and to construct vacation homes. However, the most important thing was to establish appropriate conditions for keeping the animals. We built a large, for cows suitable stable. That means that every cow today is able to roam freely, indoors and out. Animals should never be crammed together. We also started keeping old varieties like the “Swabian-Hall” swine and chickens such as the “Vorwerk” and “Deutscher Sperber”. Here, every animal lives in dignity.


Is this not the case with many other businesses by now?
No, unfortunately not. Cows are still getting their horns cut off, pigs their tails and chickens their beaks. And why? To be able to fit even more animals into the stable and make more money off of the poor animals. By doing so, I believe the farmers are mutilating their animals. This is ethically and morally not pliable anymore. I am also sure that if we were to treat our animals differently and start caging them up, that we would lose customers such as Paul and Steffi Grüner from the boutique hotel Golden Rose. They are very empathetic and sensitive as people - a reason we understand each other so well. 

Why do people like staying here with you?
Here they can feel rooted and connected. This is a beautiful piece of land and it is best when shared. For example, when I see an American family blossoming here, I can share in their happiness. Americans hardly know anything older than 250 years. I could not enjoy the land in this way before, like I can today, given the historical perspective. And for this, I am very grateful. 

How do your guests usually spend the day?
Hiking, mountain-biking, e-biking through Merano, skiing, yoga out in the open, or seeking out natural points of power.

How do you stay up to date on the newest trends?
My background is in regional development. I also dare to say that I know a thing or two about the topics of tourism, infrastructure, sustainability and organic farming. Furthermore, over the years I have built up a network consisting of professionals from the tourism industry, hotel owners and marketing managers. Just because we are farmers up here on 1500m, that doesn’t mean we don’t have Facebook, LinkedIn and Xing (smiles).

Thank you very much for the nice conversation and the insights into your company.

Interview: Andreas Haslauer