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Why young Italians are fleeing cities to take up farming

When the cows come home

While most of the world is migrating to cities, growing numbers of metropolitan Italians are taking up farming. Robyn Eckhardt meets those seeking the good life in Piedmont

While most of the world is migrating to cities, growing numbers of metropolitan Italians are taking up farming. Robyn Eckhardt meets those seeking the good life in Piedmont

Robyn Eckhardt | April/May 2017

The breezy open-air milking barn on Mirella Ravera’s farm is as serene as a yoga studio. Cows wearing ankle bracelets wander freely between open stalls lined with latex pads covered with sand and a top layer of straw that’s fluffed twice a day. At one end of the barn, bristly back-scratchers are mounted at the height of a cow’s ribs and an automated feeder dispenses food (or doesn’t) after synching with a cow’s bracelet to determine whether she has had her meal allocation. Ravera had the barn built in 2011 specifically to accommodate a 24-hour milking machine manufactured in Britain. The cows stroll unprompted to its gate, where they queue patiently. When an animal’s bracelet confirms that she is due to be milked, the gate swings open and she stands, facing a feeding bin, while the laser-guided pump milks her. The job takes five minutes.

Some 1,200 litres of milk are piped every day into a stainless-steel tank in a room next to Ravera’s workshop. What she doesn’t use to make original cheeses – like ciucco (meaning “drunk”), aged for at least 30 days in grape stems from the wine harvest, and zafran, a beautiful square of cheese coloured pale orange and subtly flavoured with crushed saffron – she sells to a milk-bottler in Liguria.

A farm with a view 
Valli Unite is set among gently rolling hills

The precision and efficiency of the dairy operation owes something to Ravera’s past. She was raised in these hills, high above Rossiglione, a village a few kilometres from the Liguria-Piedmont border, and left after secondary school to work as an accountant in Genoa. In 2005, when the firm she was working for shut down, her parents suggested she try making cheese with milk from the family’s cows. Ravera assumed it would be a way of putting money in her pocket for a while, but it has turned into her life.

Ravera is tall and lean, with short-cropped silver hair and eyes the same soft shade of brown as her cows. Her occupation, she says, is “more than work” because it carries on the contadini – farmers’ – tradition of caring for the land. Her ethics govern her choices as a farmer, but she is also a pragmatist who approaches her vocation with the precision of, well, an accountant.

Before starting out on cheesemaking she took classes in Liguria and Piedmont. She brought in a master cheesemaker to help her develop products that would capitalise on the breed of her cows (Italian brown) and on the terroir of her farm and pasture. Her cows are artificially inseminated, with an eye to improving the herd’s genetics, each of them matched to a bull selected to diminish physical shortcomings like weak ankles or bad teats. The cows are pastured year-round (except during snowfall) on five hectares of land around her farm and fed grasses grown in the Ovada flatlands, less than 20km away. Pellets supplement nutritional deficiencies in the straw, which is analysed regularly. The high-tech operation enables Ravera to keep 150 dairy cows, make cheese and sell it at two farmers’ markets each week with minimal assistance (her mother and brother work part-time, and there is one full-time helper).

Land of milk and honey 

Mirella Ravera tends her herd

Her biggest challenge is staying in the black; she makes just enough to live and invests remaining funds in the animals and the farm. Ravera sells her cheese, as well as beef from the bulls she raises, directly to customers from her farm shop and at markets and fairs, and to a few restaurants. She and her mother also run an agriturismo, letting out a couple of rooms to tourists. She thinks she could sell more cheese if she wanted to, but, she says, “I don’t want to be bigger, because I would lose this life. And then I might as well live in the city.”

The movement of people from the countryside to cities continues unabated pretty much everywhere in the world; but in Italy there is a small contraflow. The number of young people taking up small-scale farming, animal husbandry, bee-keeping and other means of food production is booming. According to Italy’s Institute for Market Services in the Agro-Food Sector (ISMEA), the number of under-35s working in agriculture has grown since 2013; between 2015 and 2016, the increase was 9.1%.

This trend is not exclusive to Italy, or indeed to the West. Michael Woods, professor in human geography at Aberystwyth University and project leader of the European Research Council GLOBAL-RURAL project, researched a group of Taiwanese twenty- and thirty-somethings working on small farms outside Taipei. Where land is expensive or hard to come by, the urge to grow food may find an outlet in cities: the urban farming movement is global and growing.

Getting hold of land in Italy is relatively easy, for farms tend to stay in families even when the land is no longer cultivated. Rebekka Dossche, a Belgian researcher at the University of Genoa and Ghent, cites what the Italians call the legame atavico, or ancestral bond, to land as one reason. “For an Italian selling one’s land is like selling a part of one’s identity,” she says. And selling can be hard, because the absence of primogeniture means that land is often divided among many family members. Almost everybody I talked to in Piedmont knows somebody with land; many young people considering taking up farming can tap a relative for land for a startup.

A further, particularly Italian, factor is at work – the state of the country. A decade and a half of economic stagnation has left its young people frustrated. Jobs for highly skilled secondary school and even college graduates are neither guaranteed nor secure. Many young people have left the country, for London or Berlin. But some have gone to the countryside.

Piedmont’s new farmers believe their vocation provides the safety net that their parents’ generation got from their employer. They say things like, “if nothing else, a farmer can at least have food on the table.” Many are idealists who believe that they can achieve a better quality of life while consuming less, but they also have a realistic streak.

“We didn’t come here to hang out and look at nature. We also want to make a living,” says Enrica Gherpelli, in the wood-stove-warmed living room of the home she shares with her partner Alessandro Piana and their two young children. Three years ago the couple left Genoa, where Gherpelli managed a law office and Piana worked in IT, and moved to Cremolina, a hilltop village of 1,100 residents, to produce saffron. At the back of the house are the Monferrato hills and the Cozie and Pennine Alps beyond. Directly below is the heart of their enterprise, named La Rienca, an anagram of Gherpelli’s name: a not-quite-finished 500-square-metre greenhouse that will eventually house 100,000 aeroponically grown saffron-producing crocuses.

Saffron began being produced in the Monferrato in the 15th century, says Gher­pelli, probably introduced to the region from abroad via Genoa; like the lavender that the couple grows in a conventional plot next to the greenhouse, it nods to local agricultural traditions. But their choice of saffron shows business savvy as well, for though Italy imports 20,000kg of saffron a year, it produces only 500-600kg. Registering La Rienca as an azienda agricola, Gherpelli and Piana can sell directly to consumers from their home, at farmers’ markets and fairs, and by mail order. According to a Nielsen survey from 2016, 71% of Italians prefer products made in Italy.

Growing room

Alessandro Piana and Enrica Gherpelli in the greenhouse at La Rienca

In the greenhouse Gherpelli, whose purple hair matches the frames of her eyeglasses, walks me along a sea of white PET planters with depressions, which will hold bulbs that will grow into 10cm plants, to be harvested after flowering. Pipes running underneath will spray the plants’ roots with water; what drips off will be captured, analysed and enriched with organic nutrients before being reused. La Rienca’s production process means that it can be registered as an organic producer, and demand for organic food is rocketing in Italy: it grew at an annual average of 12.3% between 2010 and 2015.

But it has not been easy. Delivery delays on the part of their equipment supplier have put La Rienca almost 18 months behind schedule; Gherpelli works part time at a grocery store to help make ends meet. On my last visit I found the couple painstakingly separating tiny offsets from their 100,000 parent crocus bulbs, which had been in storage since September 2015, when the greenhouse was originally scheduled to be ready. (The baby bulbs will be sent to Holland and may be replaced with mature bulbs by the supplier.) The house that Gherpelli and Piana live in, and the land on which their greenhouse sits, have been leveraged as collateral for their bank loan, along with the homes of a few family members. To me their situation feels awfully precarious. Yet Gherpelli and Piana say that their move has resulted in a higher quality of life, and they remain confident that once up and running their venture will be profitable. 

Saffron walled in 

Ottavio Rube, co-founder of Valli Unite, harvests vegetables

Italy’s new farmers are changing the image of the business. “Farmers used to be regarded as boorish rednecks,” says Ravera. “Now there is a more mindful ‘farmer-ness’ that integrates technology with tradition.” Ottavio Rube, co-founder of Valli Unite, an agricultural co-operative nestled in the gently rolling hills of eastern Piedmont’s Ossona Valley, agrees. “I feel very different in my skin now, as a farmer. In the way people look at me, by the fact that people view me as an expert.” In 1976, when Rube pooled his family land with that of his childhood friends, Enrico Boveri and Cesare Berruti, to form the cooperative, rural families were urging their sons and daughters to leave the land to seek employment and make new lives in the city. Entire villages were emptying out.

Now the co-operative has 20 members and 10-20 employees, depending on the season, and Rube’s neighbours have come round to the view that he made a sound decision. Slow Food, founded in Piedmont in 1989, has raised awareness of artisanal foods. Since 2004 the organisation’s annual Terra Madre event, a global showcase for small-scale farmers, fishermen and food producers, has boosted the idea of buying and eating locally. In Italy, as elsewhere, farmers’ markets are booming. Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale – groups of consumers who come together to buy foods in bulk directly from producers – are helping to re-establish the connection between producers and consumers. “There’s never been so much attention to the earth, to farming, to how we eat and relate to the environment as today. The power of being a farmer has grown because food is central to everything,” says Rube.

Arcimboldo eat your heart out 

A painted grain silo at Valli Unite 

Valli Unite has spawned two organic family farms run by former members, lets out a couple of apartments to visitors, sells its own produce from a small shop and from stalls at two weekly markets in Piedmont, runs a restaurant on weekends and hosts schoolchildren and other groups for tours and educational activities. It also serves as a repository of knowledge, where people of any age who are thinking of taking up farming or food production can acquire skills.

Some stay, like Turin native Sara Saracco, who heeded what she describes as an unconscious need to go back to the land and “know the origin of things” and who made her way to Valli Unite as a volunteer seven years ago. Others, like Michele Tagliabue, who spent childhood weekends in his family’s country home and got his first real taste of farm work as the manager of pig production for the co-operative, leave. He has taken up bee-keeping, with 200 hives distributed in ten apiaries around a neighbouring valley, selling his honey under the label Dietro al Monte. He needs twice as many hives to make a living.

The green reaper
Filippo Laguzzi with vegetables from the farm in the Moncalieri hills 

The twenty-something co-founders of Birrificio Agricolo di Moncalieri (BAM) hope to take the new farming movement to extremes. Their aim is complete self-sufficiency, a “closed circle” farm on which everything consumed by humans and animals is grown or produced on site. In late 2015 Nicola Laguzzi, a law graduate, and his older brother Filippo, an art and agriculture graduate, along with friends Andrea Russo and Lucca Bonelli, began brewing organic beer and farming land around a 19th-century farmhouse belonging to their aunt, set high in the Moncalieri hills just outside Turin. There are plots for hops and barley, an apiary, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden. Goats and sheep graze near the hops, chickens peck around the farm and pigs will soon be brought in. The Laguzzis and their partners talk of reclaiming the agricultural past of Moncalieri’s hills, now home mostly to wealthy non-farming families from Turin. They are planning a cultural centre and hope to host events for other young people thinking of taking up farming.

So far they have been able to support themselves and run their enterprise by pooling their own savings, selling their honey and drastically reducing living costs, but it is hard graft. Other than occasional forays to Turin to see friends, they spend their time working their farm. When we met, the younger Laguzzi was recovering from surgery for a back injury he sustained during construction of a stone wall on the farm. The partners are building a new brewery in the barn. Conditions in the old one were less than ideal, he explained. “There were a lot of exploding bottles. BAM isn’t just an acronym.” 

The Laguzzis and their partners are idealistic and determined, but they recognise that they have a long way to go. “In the beginning we talked about changing the world,” says the younger Laguzzi. “Now we understand that the world is where you live. We’re just trying to change the garden in front of us.”

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