Each term, one participant from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Anna Kate Stephenson is HECUA’s student blogger for Italy: Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice program this fall. Anna Kate is a student from the University of California Berkeley majoring in Environmental Science. Read on for her next post!
As the semester reaches a midpoint, we are learning to juggle assignments, internships, and “English for Pasta” nights. Yet, even though we have found a rhythm in our responsibilities, each day never fails to bring surprises.
A few weeks ago, the class was fascinated by a visit to Mondeggi farms, a cooperative farm managed by its members. We toured acres of olive groves and vegetable gardens and asked about the CAP’s (Common Agriculture Policy) effect on an unrecognized farm like theirs. Modeggi does not receive any subsidized help from the CAP and technically, since they are not part of the state of Florence, they are subject to being shut down and their land seized at any point in time. At our lunch there, each student was filled with questions for its members. We learned about their unanimous agreement decision-making system and creative crop-rotation methods. At the end of the day, everyone left with some sort of Mondeggi swag, whether it be a t-shirt or giant jar of honey.
Grape harvest at Castello Sonnino followed soon after. Each of us tried our gloved-hand at cutting and collecting grapes, weaving our way through a hectare of vines. By the end of the day, we celebrated the fruits of our labor by stomping on them. Though it was a fun experience, by the time we finished working, we were exhausted. It put into perspective the work that goes into the grape harvest, especially given that there were 399 hectares of vineyards left.
This manual labor continued on into many of our internships. Twice a week, I work at La Ginestra, a cooperative farm and vineyard run by only 17 farmhands. Our tasks vary, ranging from testing sugar levels of wine, to packaging pasta made onsite. We were also treated to a taste test of their variety of honeys such as chestnut, lavender, even ginger and lemon infused-honey. The two other girls who work with me, Noelle and Jo, and I are loving all the hands-on experience we are receiving and the opportunity to ask unlimited questions. We also get a peek behind the scenes of farm life. I definitely underestimated the amount of multitasking that goes into running a small farm as a business before I started working at La Ginestra. Even after harvest has ended, there are still products to be labeled, markets to attend and storage rooms to be organized. And you never know when you’ll have to attend to a task, and, coincidentally, be getting dirty. My first time there, I was wearing a white shirt when I learned that we would be wading through tubs of grapes that day. After that, I left with both a pink tie-dyed shirt and a big smile on my face.
We are also three weeks into our weekly “English for Pasta” program. It seems to collectively be a highlight of everyone’s week. Each night, we come back with stories from our evenings detailing the foods we ate and Italian conversations we had. Since beginning the program, our Italian language skills have improved dramatically. Most of our host families do not speak English so it is essential that you practice your Italian outside of class as well. On top of that, most of our families have lived within a 20-mile radius their entire lives and have plenty of traditional Tuscan cuisine to share. Both of my host families are extremely welcoming and always have a plethora of activities planned out before I arrive. We’ve baked chocolate cake, had a One Direction dance party, and watched High School Musical together already. It’s like being in 8th grade again, but at the same time, thankfully not.
This week, Roberto, an expert in biodynamic farming, is also teaching us. As he describes it, biodynamic farming has the same strict regulations as organic, except for you view your gardens through a cosmic lens. This means you plant, harvest and sow your crops according to our position relative to the sun, the moon and planets in our solar system. Therefore, all of your agricultural activity is scheduled down to the hour. You also fertilize your fields with a specific compost concoction that is required to be Demeter, or biodynamic, certified. The result is a more nutrient-rich product that stays fresher, longer. In his class, we tested this idea of a more lively plant with soil samples we collected from Roberto’s garden. After class ended, he left us with a hope that we would bring biodynamic practices into our own gardens. My ISP (Independent Study Project) focuses on biodynamic winemaking, so I picked his brain for further information on the benefits of this type of cultivation. On top of being incredibly sustainable and supportive of farmer welfare, the wine grapes it produces taste fruitier and naturally contain more sugar (and thus, more alcohol). There are no yeast or sulfite additives and the wine it creates has grown increasingly popular among sommeliers in recent years.
Now, it’s crazy to think that we only have a week until midterm then our fall break. This semester is flying by!