The pleasure that my wife and I derive nowadays from the Italian countryside reminds me that as a kid I could not get away from rural America fast enough.
Most of my life I have lived in cities. But during my teenage years, my family lived in the American Midwest — that vast heartland of largely flat terrain that served as the breadbasket of the country and, indeed, often of other parts of the world. The environmental and social ravages of the 1930s temporarily interrupted its role in the economy, prompting heartbreaking stories like The Grapes of Wrath. My family were sort of reverse “Okies,” relocating from California to Oklahoma by way of Minnesota.
My youth was spent watching crops grow in fields around the small towns we lived in during the ’60s. The view of farms from the back seat of the family station was always oblique. One could see the first rows of corn and wheat but nothing else, save for an occasional barn rising above the plants. As a youth, I found it all incredibly boring and could not wait to graduate college so I could choose my own place to live – most certainly a city. I eventually chose the most intensely urban I could find – New York City.
But now, five decades later, I’ve come full circle. My wife and I live in a tiny town in east-central Italy, so small you can walk it all in a few minutes. Perched atop a small mountain, the village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano is surrounded by rolling and sloping farmlands. At an elevation of 2,000 feet, we can see the Adriatic Sea on most days and on some especially clear days, we can see the Dinaric Alps in Croatia. The view is nothing less than breathtaking – every single day.
Towards the opposite direction are the Sibillini peaks, a sub-range of the grand Apennine Mountains that stretch from Switzerland to south of Naples. They divide the country in half lengthwise, creating two distinctly different ecosystems and cultures. Those are layered on top of the remnants of many separate former kingdoms, duchies, portions of other empires, city-states, and protectorates that kept the peninsula fractured for well over a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Living in Italy even today is like living in 20 different countries, each with its own dialect, foods, customs, traditions, and attitudes. It’s easy to forget that Italy has only been a single nation for 150 years.
But back to the farms.
The agricultural functions that I found so uncool as an adolescent are now endlessly fascinating. Part of the reason might be that we look down onto them. From this lofty escarpment, we look across valleys that continually change color multiple times a year. From the light brown, newly tilled soil, to the electric emerald green of young crops, to the dark, rich verdancy of edibles soon to be harvested. In between the green fields are two anomalies. One is vast swaths of sunflowers, their famous perky faces turning with the movement of the sun. The other is solar farms – expansive arrays of panels, some of which also are built to turn with the sun. The contrast between traditional agricultural practices and high technology is amazing.
Even these small, family-owned farms have a high-tech aspect. (It is rare to see any signs of corporate ownership as in the United States.) The farmers belong to cooperative associations that share equipment and infrastructure for storage and distribution. We watch harvesting vehicles of incredible size working the fields, moving from one to another every day. Encountering one of these behemoths on a country road is always startling. The wheels alone dwarf a car. These are also clearly styled by Italian industrial designers. With their sleek swept-back profile, glassed-in operating cabs, and bright colors, they look like a cross between a race car and a space craft. No ponderous tractors are these.
I marvel at the skills of the people operating equipment for plowing, planting, and harvesting. Farms are rarely found on flat land. Instead, the fields flow down the steep slopes of hillsides like rumpled green blankets piled on a bed. Yet, the massive vehicles glide up and down them with seeming ease.
Early each morning, an army of small trucks rolls into the village from these collective distribution centers, delivering foodstuffs to three markets, two restaurants, and a bakery. The drivers grab coffee at the local bar and chat with the old men that hang out around the entrance.
When I was growing up in the U.S., the big farms seemed vast, distant, and unapproachable, almost like secure military installations. My memories are mainly of huge silos with corporate logos, visible for miles. And bundles of tall concrete tubes flanking rail lines. By contrast, the farms of our Marche region feel approachable, intimate, and reflect individual family traditions. A flour mill a short distance from our house grinds grain still using ancient, massive stone wheels, albeit operated with computerized controls and powered by rooftop solar panels. The creek that used to drive the wheels is now a decorative feature winding through the compound. On a recent tour, I listened to two Italian women observing the grinding process and vigorously discussing the merits of 00 grade versus 0 grade flour.
Not far from that mill is a vineyard that produces wines mostly consumed within the country, some only within the region. There is no architecturally elegant tasting room as so commonly seen in Northern California, Washington State, and Upstate New York. There is only a large room stocked with racks of labeled bottles and a long row of pumps with nozzle-tipped hoses, resembling a service station, only indoors. Locals bring their own large glass containers and fill them up.
Every town has a regular street market. They are not called “farmers markets” here, as in the U.S., since they offer far more than fresh fruits and vegetables. We buy locally made shoes, hats, and clothing, and stock our own garden with flowering and edible plants from the merchants spread out in the piazzas. Since we are now regulars, some merchants simply knock off part of the price or throw in a few more random items. We are loyal to these families and they to us.
Occasionally a cheese merchant makes a trip to our central province with fresh mozzarella, burrata, and other cheeses that he gets from regions in southern Italy. He rings the doorbell and throws open the back door of the truck to show off what he has. He’s a savvy “up-seller,” as he frequently tosses in something new for us to try, thereby clinching a future purchase.
We have lost count of the times we have both exclaimed loudly after biting into a fresh tomato, a stalk of asparagus, or a clementine orange – available for almost half the year. The taste is explosive. Then we wonder what we were eating over all those years.
Italian land-use laws protect farmland from being consumed by outward development. There is a visibly sharp line between what is urban and what is agricultural. It’s not uncommon for dense development to stop like a knife edge, with food growing beyond. Indeed, dozens of small, family-owned farms dot the countryside just beyond the road that winds around our village.
Observing the repeated cycles of planting and growing and harvesting is a constant and potent reminder of the interdependence of cities and farms.