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MOUNTAIN FARMERS. A vanishing Swiss species

EDOUARD RUBIN lives in a quaint wooden chalet 4,000 feet up in the spectacular snowcapped Alps. He wears the yodeler's traditional loden cap. Whenever he takes his cows out to pasture, he drapes traditional large bells around their necks. Mr. Rubin, in short, is the traditional picture of bucolic, blissful Switzerland.

But take a closer look. It is 6:30 in the morning and Mr. Rubin's boots are covered with cow manure. His barn is so cramped he must hold his head down to make his way around the cows, goats, and sheep. He huffs. He sweats. The stench is suffocating.

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``The tourists come here and say, `Oh, it looks so beautiful, it smells so wonderful, it's heaven,''' Rubin says, shaking his head. ``Then they complain that the animals make too much noise, that they smell, that it's horrible. What ... do they want?''

The plaintive question propels a debate about this country's identity. Not too long ago, Switzerland was primarily a rural country populated by poor farmers eking out their existence in inhospitable terrain. Today, it is mostly an advanced post-industrial country, a hospitable home to wealthy multinationals, a banking and tourist haven.

Here in Rougemont, these two Switzerlands form an uneasy mix. Down in the valley is Gstaad, a jet-set winter hideaway crowded with chic boutiques such as Cartier, Hermes, Valentino, and Piaget. Up in the mountains live farmers such as Rubin, dressed in dirty jeans and making most of their own food.

``The difference between valley and mountain,'' says Henri Rouge, an agronomist at the University of Lausanne, ``is like the difference between the first and third worlds.''

Many farmers have left the land to make their fortunes. According to Michel Pellaux of the Ministry of Agriculture in Bern, the 326,000 Swiss farmers in 1950 dropped to 150,000 in 1980, less than 5 percent of the population.

High-altitude farmers such as Rubin, those working and living above 3,250 feet, are a disappearing species. In Rubin's youth, Rougemont was home to several hundred farmers. Only 50 remain. The other farmhouses have been turned into weekend residences for wealthy city dwellers.

At the Agriculture Ministry, Mr.Pellaux says there are only about 50,000 mountain farmers left in the whole country. The reason: low incomes. Farmers down in the valleys earn twice as much.

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``Who is going to guard the land in wartime, who is going to keep up our beautiful countryside so the city tourists can enjoy it?'' Pellaux asks. ``Are large parts of our country going to turn into deserts?''

Citing these concerns, the Swiss government has stepped in to help. It pays generous subsidies to mountain farmers. For each cow up to 15, farmers get up to $700 annually. Extra money is paid depending on the steepness of their land. The entire program costs a staggering $150 million a year.

``It's a good investment,'' argues Joerg Wyder, director of the Swiss Association for the Mountain Population. ``These farmers are our best gardeners.''

The subsidies smooth the worst edges of potential poverty. Rubin's chalet is comfortable, if cramped. It has three bedrooms, a television, and toilet.

His work is punishing. In wintertime, he rises at sunrise to care for the animals, and spends long, cold hours felling trees and clearing his land. In summertime, he takes the animals up to mountaintop grazing land, sleeping alone in a small shack.

``As soon as a child can walk here, he works,'' Rubin says. ``We do most things ourselves. We only go to the village once a week.''

But Swiss taxpayers, tired of paying ever-increasing farm subsidies, have mounted popular initiatives to cut the subsidies. At the same time, farmers such as Rubin are ashamed of their dependence on state handouts, ashamed of being described as ``gardeners.''

``I couldn't live without the subsidies. They make up 60 percent of my income,'' Rubin admits. ``But I can't stand taking charity.''

Solutions involve bringing together town and mountain. In Rougemont, agronomist Erwin Stucki has begun an innovative program. He has encouraged the farmers to produce luxury foodstuffs. The region's generic Swiss cheese now is marketed as savory L'Etivaz.

Mr. Stucki encourages farmers to fix up their farms and take in paying guests. He also encourages them to take on part-time jobs in the winter.

``We can't be a closed society,'' Stucki says. ``We must adapt to the new leisure-oriented society.''

But the transition is tough. Rubin's pretty 12-year-old daughter, Cora, dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but doubts she can put up with the required schooling in Lausanne or Geneva.

``When the tourists come here and see me and my friends, they laugh at what we wear,'' Cora says. ``They call us `little country girls.'''

But the Rubin family is adapting. For many years, Edouard Sr. worked winters at the local ski resort. His 18-year-old son, Edouard Jr., wants to stay on the farm, but his father insisted he learn a trade. So he is studying to be a plumber. His 16-year-old daughter, Christine, is studying in a nearby town to become a pharmacist.

``It's funny,'' Rubin says, not laughing. ``One day soon, they'll put farmers like me in a museum.''

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