It’s easy to scoff at the prices of organic produce. I once had a face-off with a very small, very pricey capsicum in a Sydney whole foods store – $8 for about 100 grams. Is this just a total scam? I thought to myself, sporting a puzzled look while handling the tiny red fruit.
For most people living in cities, usually without access to farmer’s markets or a farm itself, you’ll be lucky to get the opportunity to meet a farmer. That’s why I was so excited to visit a local farm as part of our Sustainable Agriculture course while studying a Masters at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
We took a field trip to L’Orto del Pian Bosco, a 15-hectare certified organic fruit, vegetable and nut farm run by Andrea Giaccardi and his wife, Irene, and mother, Manuela. As they’re just a 20-minute drive from where most of us students live, they supply the local co-op with a weekly seasonal produce box service. Their farm is also an agriturismo (an Italian concept where farms offer a place to stay and an on-site restaurant) with rooms to rent, a spacious restaurant and a farm shop selling seasonal ingredients and a huge range of house-made preserves – creamed pumpkin, pickled cauliflower, apricot conserve, honey-drenched plums, and much more.
Their first priority with running the farm is to maintain the health of the environment. “There was no choice for me but to grow organic,” says Andrea, who studied natural sciences at uni and has collaborated with the University of Turin for 18 years to carry out studies on his farm that explore the relationship between organic farming and environmental impacts. Even though organic agriculture has grown rapidly in Italy since the ’90s, it remains challenging to run a small-scale biologico (the Italian term for ‘organic’) operation and turn a decent profit. In the early days, he would drive two hours to a neighbouring province just to find customers; nowadays he has solid relationships with buyers here in Piedmont, but does also need to sell his goods in France.
Add to that travelling around 30km to source organic manure (which apparently is not a requirement here by certification standards), giving attention to 50 types of produce to satisfy market demands for variety, rotating crops to regenerate soil health (thus leaving fields empty when they could be used to grow goods to sell), and keeping the restaurant open at all times for locals who prefer to walk in rather than make a booking – which means paying a chef regardless of whether anyone turns up. Family members often provide labour to avoid this scenario – Irene and Manuela make all the preserves themselves, for instance – which means even longer working hours. Educational activities are important to the ethos of the farm; school and uni groups often visit, stealing time away from demanding farm work. Meanwhile, by law in Italy, agriturismi must ensure that 50% of the total value of the restaurant’s products are sourced directly from the agriturismo’s own farm. That’s not so easy when your product is fresh fruit and veg, rather than meat, cheese or wine. Andrea partners with local winemakers and properties raising animals in order to meet that regulation.
All in all, it’s a tough balancing act. Without getting into the is-organic-food-even-any-better debate (that’s a whole other post), it’s kind of easy to see how the costs can add up. What struck me most about the approach to sustainability at L’Orto is that it isn’t just about the environment – it’s an extension of the family’s personal values, reflected in ecological concerns, the way they run their business, their commitment to working with the local community and offering educational opportunities. It’s a trifecta of environmental, economic and social sustainabilities.
It’s important to acknowledge that most people can’t afford to buy organic produce at its current prices – I include myself in that statement. I care deeply about sustainability, but am like any normal person operating within a modern, urban system and thus a) am not crazy rich, and b) go to supermarkets because they’re convenient. Sadly, not being able to shop exclusively at farmer’s markets or direct from farms is just the reality for most people (save going entirely off-grid and starting my own eco-village – drop me a line if you’re up for it and have gigabillions of dollars), but not always consuming the way I’d prefer to doesn’t mean I therefore don’t care about these topics.
Even after visiting many farms like L’Orto and gaining a much better appreciation for what they do, I still couldn’t pay $8 for that miniature red pepper. Because that’s just not financially realistic for me, at this point in my life as a young freelance (read: usually broke) journalist. However, I think I get it a bit more now. I understand more now the reasons – at least if it’s from a small-scale organic perspective – that it might be necessary for some farmers to price their produce higher (and hopefully it’s coming straight from them and not passing through a thousand middle men before reaching the shelves of a fancy grocer).
For having had the chance to dive into a complicated, lengthy, honest conversation with a farmer about the way they work, why they do what they do and the challenges they face, I feel pretty lucky indeed.
**If you want to read a little more about Andrea and his farm, I wrote an article about L’Orto for Organic Gardener magazine**