Italy — Living Among Farms


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.

The hilltop village Santa Vittoria in Matenano, with the 10th-century wall and original monastery on the left (Image: Mark Hinshaw).

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.

Image: Mark Hinshaw.

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.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.


  1. Having just returned from Italy, I enjoyed this article very much. I regret that we only made it to Rome and Pompeii. I saw farms like those you describe only from our train. Nothing could ever ruin Rome for me, a city of great beauty and antiquity, which I visit when I can, and love beyond all reason. I could see that the last few years have been hard for people there. There’s more graffiti, maybe a little more grime. But Italians still have their indomitable spirit, impossible to describe.

  2. Amused, sounds like you have enough rural experience to enjoy the experience. We live in Portland but have a farm in the valley. Farmers generally, while a nice bunch of people don’t enjoy city people moving into the five acre farms left over when bigger farms merge most of the land. Our new neighbors are enthusiastic about rural life- chickens, gardens, apple trees and little Sally gets a pony- then reality hits- living on the factory floor- it’s loud, dusty, lots of spraying, and that neighbor might be moving a large piece of equipment down that two-lane road just when you might be driving home. And they start to complain, a lot. It’s lovely just not bucolic. More fun are the bike clubs riding down country roads, no one wants to hurt anyone but the person driving that huge truck, the one who has been up all night harvesting might not see you riding down the center of the road. Not Disneyland just a bunch of folks on tight margins trying to keep the banks off their backs.

  3. I wonder why the agriculture scene here in Portugal is so different. (I’ll be back in Seattle this week, but today it’s still “here”, a small city in central Portugal.) There’s some farming, but no glamor in it. There’s a farmer’s market, a couple days in the week, but it’s old rather rustic farmers and not many people buying.

    In the district capital Leiria, 20 miles away, the Saturday farmer’s market is a lot more lively, more comparable to Seattle, and my guess is that it isn’t coincidence: the farm to household connection there is meaningful to a small enough minority that viability requires a fairly large population center, like on the order of 100,000.

    Agriculture I see around the area is mostly olives, corn, grapes. It isn’t like you can’t get locally grown produce – it’s all over the place – but I think somewhat to the despair of people who come here having heard about good food and hoping for exotically finer things somewhat as you describe there: folks here just don’t really care that much. There’s good food, good wine, good cheese – so relax. Have some more potatoes and salt cod. There’s no fussing around with multiple courses, as far as I know. They have grappa, and drink plenty of it, but they don’t know that it’s anything but cheap firewater. They have espresso – everyone drinks straight espressos, and it’s common at any meal including dinner – but no local roasters or any way to get freshly roasted coffee. If you like a culture where pretty good is plenty good enough, that’s what we got here.


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