I recently visited a local farm for a cheese and wine tour in the Tuscan town Montepulciano, (just 1.5 hours south of Florence) and I have to say I had my mind blown just a little bit.
The farm I visited has a little over 100 sheep and goat to produce the typical pecorino toscano cheese that is so fundamental to Tuscan cheese culture. Pecorino is Italian for sheep milk cheese (although some mix in some goat milk), and Tuscany is not the only region that has its own pecorino cheese. Like you may have heard of pecorino romano (from Lazio) or pecorino sardo (from Sardinia). History of sheep’s milk cheese dates back several centuries as the food was a luxury item for the nobility but also at the same time a form of sustenance for pastoral peasants as the cheese packs a lot of flavor when aged (perfect for enhancing a peasant vegetable soup) or a lot of nutrition when fresh (like fresh pecorino).
What was interesting to me is that the farm was completely organic and produced also grains (which they use for pasta and bread making), olive oil (like everyone in Tuscany- olive trees are everywhere here), wine and apiculture (honey!). I was happy to see some young people working the farm because this today is sort of trendy but realistically, a self-sustaining farm is how Italians have survived in historically poor eras and how many rural societies operate today.Rural communities produce and exchange (or sell) with their neighbors and on a small (organic) scale, it can work.
However, more and more people are becoming less and less interested in working in the fields and migrating to cities for office jobs. Part of this has forced big farms to become the norm and thus increased their thirst (and need) for profit by using non-organic means. There is no way the world can produce natural, organic small scale produced food for what like 7 billion people especially when agronomists and farmers are dwindling and land grabs for urban sprawl are increasing.
As much as I am a huge proponent for sustainable, organic food- I also realize that at this current time it is impossible to expect. However, in a small country like Italy- it could make sense. Except the fact that people are generally poor here and it makes sense for a family to buy a kilo of breakfast cookies for €4 euros by a huge multinational who is probably sourcing flour from several countries (whose quality standards I question) than buy organic whole grain locally baked ones for more than triple the price. There is no way a bag of cookies that weighs a kilo could cost €4 without cutting corners, and in my opinion- safety.
More and more I see the importance of organic food production. Digesting agri-chemicals which leave residue on our food undoubtedly is unhealthy and increases our risk for disease when constantly exposed. It’s not just consuming the food with chemical residue- it’s the production plants that undoubtedly pollute the air and water of nearby towns. It’s a risk to the farm workers breathing in the sprays in the fields. It’s the petrol chemicals being refined in order to produce them. It’s the fracking for oil which then pollutes our environment (water included) which is then needed to extract energy to produce agrichemicals. But as much as I am lecturing on about this- I don’t see any other realistic alternative at this time. Unless of course, we all go back to nature and learn to be somewhat self-sufficient. Or until green energy becomes profitable. Organic food is definitely profitable but that means only a select few can actually afford it. And that’s not right. Everyone has the right to clean and healthy food that won’t poison them. But something has got to give. We need to learn how to even just grow herbs on our windowsill. I have friends in Italy who are letting their family vineyards be demolished because they have no interest in carrying on the tradition of family wine production. We need to somehow bring back interest in self-sufficiency and pressure our elected officials to invest more in organic agriculture and divest in agribusiness. We decidedly depend too much on the market to provide things we can’t be bothered to produce and demand too much from it to be perfect.
So I didn’t talk so much about the amazing cheese flight, floral thick honey and the lovely homestyle organic wine…because well, these topics impressed me more. That a group of people have chosen to go against the grain and live a rough, rural lifestyle for the sake of clean food. These people have to work hard to maintain an organic production site- it’s not always rosy. They have to decide to live in the inefficiencies of the countryside in total isolation. But it is a sacrifice that creates beautiful foods that nourish not only the people that visit, but keeps the idealism alive that the world can be a healthy, organic and green planet.
Yours in organic advocacy,