Home-Based Farming, Italian Style


From the rooftop terrace of our house in the Marche region of east-central Italy, we overlook a broad valley filled with farms cascading down hillsides — like an enormous rumpled quilt that changes from tan to green and back with each growing season.

These are all small, family-owned farms; there’s not a shred of evidence that any corporate farming is prevalent. This means we enjoy produce, meats, and dairy products as fresh as possible, with daily deliveries via small trucks that ascend to our hilltop village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano in the early morning.

Directly below us is what might be called a farmette, or as the Brits call it — a “smallholding.” On this modest-sized plot of land sits two houses — a small one built of stone, very old and decrepit looking, apparently not occupied in decades, and a large, boxy, modern, two-story house. Next to the latter is a garage tucked into the slope of the hillside, the roof of which serves as a sort of small side yard off the kitchen.

There are also two outbuildings — a rough masonry barn with a terra cotta tile roof that is rapidly deteriorating, and a generic concrete block shed with a rusting, corrugated metal roof. The rest of the property is grasses, or perhaps weeds. A good portion of the parcel seems to be overrun with unrestrained vines.

In the six years we have lived here, we have seen five different families occupy the plot. Each has tried a different form of subsistence farming. And each has had little success, it seems.

The first occupants we noticed attempted to plant vegetables on the roof of the garage, as it was just outside the rear door. Having a “kitchen garden” ourselves, we scratched our heads. We wondered how the roots were supposed to penetrate the concrete deck once they passed through a layer of topsoil barely thicker than a bathmat. The answer was they did not.

At any rate, the occupants of the house quickly became less interested in gardening and more interested in drinking late into the evening, with their TV constantly on, and loudly arguing. A few weeks later everything in the planted area was brown. So much for Farmette #1. We were not sorry to see the noisy, failed farmers leave when their lease expired.

The next family raised chickens. Lots of chickens. The rooster could be counted on to crow frequently, both day and night. The hens skittered across the weed-choked field on the hunt for bugs and worms. It was pretty entertaining as they would all suddenly notice a new source of food and bolt, en masse, with feathers flying and lots of squawking. During this tenure, the occupants decided to remove a whole row of mature trees along the road below us, which had been lovely to look at, especially when they had springtime blossoms. Oh well, a minor irritant.

Old barn, with goats (photo: Mark Hinshaw).

Those people left and were replaced by tenants with clearly more ambitions, agriculturally-speaking. They brought in a small passel of goats, which soon doubled, then doubled again. Observing the kids romping about was great entertainment. They bounded and leapt onto everything — roofs, fences, walls, trees, vehicles, each other, and the adult goats. The playful chaos was enchanting. That lasted a year. Then the goats suddenly and completely disappeared, while the occupants of the house remained. I was perplexed.

A friend lives in a house near the farm. So, I asked her if she knew what happened to the goats. With her charming accent — a blend of madrelingua Russian, melodious Italian, and a “move-along-now- folks” terseness of British English, she explained, “They ATE them!”

Oh, I see. That put me off lamb. For almost a week.

The next bunch of aspiring agronomists had some grand plan — but not one I could figure out. They spent weeks laboriously pounding dozens of long metal posts into the ground around the perimeter of the grassy.…er, weedy… central area. They affixed mesh fabric (aka chain link), enclosing a trapezoidal-shaped pen of sorts. They had no dogs, no cows, no sheep, no other animals to keep contained inside. Instead, they planted vegetables. Why tomatoes and carrots and zucchini needed containment, I do not know, but ravenous cinghiale — Italian wild boar — roam the countryside. So, there’s that.

Some local gardeners place empty water bottles upended, atop slender fence posts. I am told their clacking sounds and bright sun reflections frighten away voracious birds. I guess it’s the contemporary Italian version of the iconic American scarecrow, and, come to think of it, I have not seen even one scarecrowhhere. After many decades of post-World War II farming assistance, it seems odd that this analog-based agricultural technology was not transferred across the Atlantic. But I suppose the “scary bottle” method works well enough.

In any case, this recent agricultural attempt fared no better than the preceding ones. The would-be farmers got weary of lugging big buckets of water out to the field, as it has no source of water. Eventually, the vegetable plants dried up — a sad testament to an absence of expertise. Hell, much of our own experience with gardening has involved disasters, including a greenhouse that exploded during a windstorm.

Many Italian families seem to have a knack for home gardening. If they have the land, most homes display an orto — the Italian word specifically for a vegetable garden. Typically, they are bursting with luxuriant tomato plants winding up tall pyramidal bamboo trellises erected each spring. Our own garden differs from the usual orto in that it also includes flowers and unusual plants grown for the herbal medicines my wife makes. Passersby often stop in front, point, and stare in puzzlement at these strange plants. This year, my wife put out small placards on stakes with each plant’s name.

In an orto across the street, an industrious couple works their garden plot every day. We know this because every afternoon they somehow find a need to deploy an array of cacophonous power tools in their gardening endeavors. They pause this , Shortnoise-production only long enough to tend to their two wildly yapping little dogs.

Recently we have noticed that the current occupants of the farmette have a cluster of cube-shaped, green boxes mounted on stout legs. Honeybees, no doubt. We do need pollinators, for sure. We have planted colorful flowers to attract them. I’m waiting to see one of the neighbors setting out in a beekeeper’s regalia with hood and heavy gloves. I’m eager to see the classic scene of thousands of bees covering the intrepid gardener’s torso and limbs.

I am easily entertained.

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. I envy the Hinshaws their surroundings, their lifestyle, their food, and the culture they have found.
    The style of farming is what is properly highlighted in this trip through the Italian agricultural landscape, but there are changes afoot. There may not be evidence of corporate farming US style or as evidenced in other EU countries, but the high turnover in small farms in Italy speaks to the difficulty of sustaining those small farms. The average Italian farm has doubled in size over the last decade. The EU has developed policies specifically aimed at sustaining small farming in Southern Europe. Portugal has even more small farms than Italy. They benefit from strong government initiatives that support and sustain those small farms. In Italy’s case it is the EU that is the bulwark.
    The long range outlook is not as rosy as the picture. enjoyed by theHinshaws. Long may they be able to enjoy their surroundings.

  2. Portugal also has plenty of industrial farming, of course, with the usual attendant detrimental side effects. Right where we are, the only thing grown on small plots are olives, and of course little courtyard gardens like our neighbor’s with a variety of fruit trees, grapes, tomatoes etc., but farther out in the countryside there’s plenty of vegetables and corn.

    The one thing I don’t see, in this picture, is anyone under 40 years of age, maybe 50. They don’t grow it, they don’t buy it. I suppose that’s partly structural – the business is crowded because it has survived intact, where US small farming is more of a revival. And of course the demographics.


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